United Gets $1.1 Million Fine For Tarmac Delays

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Last week, United was fined nearly $1.1 million for delays of over 3 hours on 13 planes at Chicago O’Hare last year. It is the biggest fine of its kind since the Department of Transportation instituted new rules in 2010 meant to bar airlines to strand passengers for over 3 hours on the tarmac without an opportunity to deplane for domestic flights, and were extended to tarmac delays over four hours or more on international flights.

United was handed a historic fine from the DOT last week.

All 13 incidents, involving over 900 passengers in all, occurred on the same day during a series of heavy thunderstorms, and all 13 planes were United Express jets. Only $475,000 will be due directly to the government while the rest of the fine will go toward preventing future incidents like this – though exactly how isn’t specified. The airline was also given credit for already compensating passengers with $185,000 for the delay.

Interestingly enough, the first tarmac delay fines were issued back in November 2011 to American Airlines for delays on 15 different American Eagle flights also at Chicago O’Hare that kept over 600 passengers on board for over three hours. That fine was $900,000.

Although I am glad the DOT is acting on its authority to fine airlines for delays like this, both these cases were actually just slaps on the wrist considering that it has the power to fine airlines $27,500 per passenger, meaning each of these punishments could be in the millions of dollars. While I don’t think that is appropriate except under the most extreme of circumstances, I can’t help feeling it could have been a bit harsher to send a stronger message.


That said, since the new rules came into effect, tarmac delays have dropped dramatically – for instance, back in 2009, there were nearly 700 tarmac delays over over 3 hours, while that number dropped to 42 in 2012 (16 of which occurred during storms on Christmas day, and 14 of which were at Dallas Ft. Worth). However, 2013 is looking like a reverse in the trend with over 60 flights including both domestic and international delayed over the allotted time limits, though to be fair, 12 of them occurred at LaGuardia the day in July that a Southwest jet’s malfunctioning landing gear shut down the airport.

I know a lot of people who come down on either side of this issue. Some praise the DOT for instituting and executing more passenger-friendly rules on airlines, while others decry them for spooking flight crews afraid of a fine into pulling planes back into gates for any minor delay and therefore tying up those gates and causing even more delays.

However, I’m more on the side that supports these new rules since in my experience, if a flight isn’t taking off after 3 hours on the tarmac, it’s probably not going to take off at all, and later flights are going to have the same issues anyway, so tying up a gate isn’t going to cause that many additional problems.

So I’m glad to see the DOT handing out fines and hope it will convince airlines to get a better handle on their traffic control and put the customers first.

What are your thoughts? Should the DOT have fined United, and if so, was it enough?

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