United just got fined nearly $2 million for 25 long tarmac delays

Sep 24, 2021

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The federal government showed Friday that it will hold U.S. airlines accountable for lengthy tarmac delays, imposing stiff fines against United Airlines for stranding passengers on planes for hours during bad weather. Some of the delays date back nearly seven years ago.

The fines announced Friday by the Department of Transportation come to nearly $76,000 per flight.

In total, the agency served United with $1.9 million in civil penalties for allowing 20 domestic and five international flights (between December 2015 and February 2021) to remain on the tarmac for more than three and four hours, respectively, without giving passengers the option to deplane. This violates the airline’s tarmac delay contingency plan that the DOT requires each airline to adopt.

Additionally, according to the order, the Chicago-based airline failed to provide “sufficient resources” for its plan when encountering long tarmac delays.

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In total, the 25 flights were carrying 3,218 passengers, equating to a nearly $600 fine per passenger — at that rate, United might’ve actually lost money on all the affected flights. Airlines that defy the rule can actually be fined up to $27,500 per passenger.

Of the 25 flights that the Department of Transportation (DOT) cited in its order, five of them occurred on April 14, 2019, after its Chicago O’Hare hub was impacted by a snowstorm. Ten total flights were diverted to Dane County (MSN) that day, overwhelming United’s ground resources at the small Wisconsin regional airport.

Though United was offered deplaning assistance from the airport, according to the order, the airline didn’t initially accept the offer — and when the ground delay exceeded three hours for five of the ten rerouted flights, the tarmac delay rule took effect.

Many of the other affected flights were also rerouted due to severe weather and stranded passengers on the tarmac for hours, waiting for an assigned gate or for the weather to clear, before hitting the three- or four-hour mark.

Related: American, Delta receive heavy fines for tarmac delay infractions

In responding to the DOT, United even cited that “diversions pose particularly challenging circumstances for passengers who never intended to be present in those locations.” In United’s perspective, the DOT’s lengthy tarmac delay rule puts it in a bind — what if there’s a small window of opportunity to get passengers to their intended destination just at the tail end of the three-hour window?

As such, United “respectfully disagrees” with the DOT that some of the fines for the diverted flights are warranted.

Additionally, United took issue with how the DOT calculated each fine. The airline said fines should be per flight, or per day, but not per passenger. However, that is not what the DOT regulations specify.

Nevertheless, the airline ultimately came to a settlement and now needs to pay up.

The good news for passengers? A lengthy tarmac delay is rare. In the more than five-year time period that the DOT analyzed, just 25 out of nearly 8 million flights operated by United and its regional partners qualified for enforcement action.

And if you happen to be one of the unlucky few who get stranded, well the agency takes the lengthy tarmac rule seriously – there just might be a delay in justice.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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