United Could Face Hefty Fines Over Tarmac Delays

May was the first full month that the Dept. of Transportation’s new regulations regarding planes idling on the tarmac were in effect. And for United Airlines, it could end up being a very expensive few weeks. Of the 5 flights that violated the new rules, 4 were operated by United.

The regulation fines airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for each plane that idles on the tarmac for three hours or more. So depending on the DOT’s final rulings and the number of passengers on each of the four delayed flights, United could be looking at upward of several million dollars in penalties.

The DOT says the investigation into these violations could take weeks. There are exceptions to the rule that allow planes to go beyond the 3-hour deadline for reasons of safety and security or if an air traffic controller orders them to not return to the gate.

All four delayed United flights occurred on the same day at the same airport. On May 26, foul weather had temporarily shut down Denver International Airport, forcing the four flights to be diverted to Colorado Springs, where the bad weather caught up with them and caused more delays.

According to the DOT, the delays ranged from 3 hours and 10 minutes to 4 hours and 41 minutes.

Explains a United rep:

All customers were offered the opportunity to exit the plane and were provided snacks and water as we waited for the weather to improve and air traffic control clearance to safely continue on to Denver

The fifth delayed flight in May was operated by Delta. According to a rep for that airline, the flight crew had asked to return to the terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport following a delay of two hours, but were told they could not by air traffic controllers. Ultimately, the flight took to the air just two minutes after the 3-hour mark.

Do you think the United delays merit the steep fine?

United may face fines over new tarmac delay rules [Chicago Tribune]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Abradax says:

    The passengers should get the fine money, not the government.

  2. DingoAndTheBaby says:

    I want to say United deserves a steep fine just for being United as there’s undoubtedly myriad other reasons they should be fined but for which there’s no laws. And this is unfortunate. But, amidst all the airline-bashing that occurs on this site, I have to contend that if United legitimately made the effort to return and/or they met the wickets for NOT being fined, then they should be let off the hook.

  3. weedpindle says:

    In May, I sat on the tarmac in SFO for 2 hrs 20 min due to the fact that the United pilot & co-pilot were delayed while flying from home – LAX – to SFO on United

  4. tedyc03 says:

    Sounds like many of these delays were related directly to airport operations, not the stupidity of the airlines. If that’s the case, fines will not apply.

    • brianary says:

      Isn’t it still the airline’s choice not to deplane everyone if there will be a long wait?

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        Yes, yes it is. Delays, although not always the airlines fault, are not an excuse to keep 75+ people trapped in a sardine can for several hours against their will.

        • JRules says:

          Did you not read the article?

          “All customers were offered the opportunity to exit the plane and were provided snacks and water as we waited for the weather to improve and air traffic control clearance to safely continue on to Denver”

          • Putaro says:

            That’s what the PR agent says. Is it the truth? Were they offered the chance to deplane and get back on or were they told “You can get off and take your chances on getting onto another flight, but if you do so we don’t take responsibility for rebooking you, you’ll have to pay any charges for changing your tickets and if you can’t get another flight today you’ll have to cover your hotel yourself”?

        • FatLynn says:

          Assuming there is a gate available. That may not be the case if they were diverted to another airport.

        • drizzt380 says:

          It says they were offered the opportunity to exit the plane. Not sure what conditions went with that offer, but people were not held against their will.

  5. fsnuffer says:

    This will push the airlines to put finances in front of safety.

    • brianary says:

      Please explain.

      AFAIK, this is the airlines not wanting to spend a little money letting people off and then back on the plane if there is going to be a significant delay.

      • fsnuffer says:

        The decision to proceed with a flight is made by balancing a lot of different factors such as weather, aircraft status (non-mandatory equipment), Air traffic delays and so on. If the weather at your destination is just above minimums or they are expecting severe weather, the pilot will weigh the cost of returning to the gate or pressing on and hope the weather does not deteriorate. This new penalty will skew the equation towards the “lets go for it”. Another example of this is in the Air Force, a lot of crews have been killed by what is referred to as “Get-Home-itis”. This is where something is broke on the aircraft that should be looked into but they decide to proceed anyway and wind up crashing



        • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

          Right, because crashing a commercial plane in dangerous weather against advice costs a lot less in survivor compensation and legal fees than giving the passengers an opportunity to get out.

        • allknowingtomato says:

          If the weather at your destination city is iffy, and the pilot is picking between taking off and returning to the gate, why not just let people off the friggin’ plane if the pilot decides to return to the gate? how will the regs asking to open the plane door impact that decision? the weather at the destination city will continue to change somewhat unpredictably as the plane is in flight, so there is no perfectly clear 90-second window during which the plane MUST take off. I have been on tons of flights that have to kill a bit of time in the air waiting for a break in the weather at the destination city. The timing of the landing is not written in stone at the time of take-off.

          Situations and mentalities in which pilots in the Air Force fly != situations and mentalities in which pilots for consumer airlines fly.

          I do think the regs might result in changes to how airlines load planes during bad weather: instead of loading planes full of people and having them wait around for hours to take advantage of the few windows of decent weather, airlines might load the baggage, let people load the overhead bins, and then let people back off the plane to wait in the airport for breaks in the weather. So the new consumer complaint will be, “Help! my luggage and carry-ons took off without me because I missed the re-board because I refused to get out of line at Cinnabon!”

    • allknowingtomato says:

      That is a false, silly talking point put out by airlines to scaremonger/bitch about the fines. The regulations do not impose a fine if the delay is for safety or security reasons. Besides, for-profit companies (especially publicly traded ones subject to shareholder supremacy obligations) put finances ahead of….well, most everything. For example, the regulations exist in the first place because airlines were putting finances ahead of reasonable minimal levels of customer comfort, and in some cases, customer safety. I remember stories about people with diabetes and other medical conditions being effectively held prisoner by airlines before the DOT stepped in with the regs.

      When you compare the cost of the required services to the potential fine to potential outcome of the safety risk(a plane crash complete with gov’t fines for violating safety stds., litigation etc), you get:

      plane crash/lawsuits >> 27.5k per passenger >> Domino’s and Dasani (unless they’re giving you 28K worth of pizza and water)

      So companies, putting finances first, will chose to follow the rules.

      • fsnuffer says:

        Your point is false because the companies will have to spend thousands on legal fees fighting the fine. It does not matter if the money goes to attorneys or the government. It still costs them a ton of money

        • sleze69 says:

          His post is true.

          1 – They don’t have to fight the fines
          2 – In the future, they can avoid the fines by NOT violating the rules

          I should be a financial advisor.

        • brianary says:

          They don’t have to fight the fine at all, and the cost of fighting it goes down significantly if they don’t have a case.

  6. Mike says:

    I don’t know all the rules right now, but I remember the last time I was stuck on a plane on the tarmac. The only real problem was that we were forced to stay in our seats with no food or water and we were not allowed to get up and go to the bathroom since we were not at the gate. Seriously, I would have no problem sitting in a plane for hours waiting for weather to clear up if I was fed and allowed to stretch and use the bathroom.

    “All customers were offered the opportunity to exit the plane.” If these passengers were allowed to exit the plane and stretch outside while they waited for weather to clear up that should be enough.

    • stlbud says:

      Agreed. I thought the law was to prevent passengers from being imprisoned in the plane for 3 or more hours. There is a huge difference between getting jammed into a plane for 3 hours and delaying the flight for 3 hours but allowing passengers freedom to leave the plane and move around. In any event, I would guess this would have been interpreted as a safety issue since the weather, apparently, made operations dangerous.

  7. jsl4980 says:

    If you’re going to fine anyone split the fine between the airlines and the airport, and give the money to the passengers.

    In the end the threat of those fines will cause more unintended consequences. Airlines will cancel more flights instead of delaying them. I’d rather sit on a plane for a few hours than have to possibly get a hotel and wait for a flight the next day.

    • brianary says:

      Well, if I’m going to wait eight hours, I’d much rather do it in a hotel, or the airport, or a freakin’ snowbank, than in a hot plane with overflowing bathrooms and screaming children and angry staff with absolute power.

      Maybe that’s just me.

  8. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    When United says they offered passengers the opportunity to disembark, I wonder if by doing so they forfeited their seat for the flight. If so, United didn’t really offer them anything.

    • Dover says:

      Yeah, United’s response is very vague. Hard to know if they violated the rules without a better understanding of what they told the passengers.

    • Randell says:

      Yes, they made the offer. Just because YOU don’t like the offer does not make it not an offer. Imagine the last flight of the day. The pilot says, you can get off the plane, but once you do, you are off for good. We think we will take off at the 3 hour and 10 minute mark. Planes are not like loading and unloading a car. They can not let you off in the middle of the tarmac.

  9. Dover says:

    “All customers were offered the opportunity to exit the plane…”

    The rules say the airlines have to deplane, but if the passengers were given the option, isn’t that goo enough?

    “According to a rep for [Delta], the flight crew had asked to return to the terminal […] but were told they could not by air traffic controllers.”

    So they didn’t break the rule, then?

    • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      No. It’s not good enough. In exchange for the price paid for the ticket, United accepted the responsibility for getting them to their destination. Therefore it’s only good enough if after being given the opportunity to exit, the passengers can have or do one or more of the following as applicable:

      – Avail themselves of the opportunity (i.e. passengers needing special assistance, transportation provided back to the gate, etc.)
      – Get back on the plane when it is cleared to fly (including assistance and transportation back to the plane from the gate)
      – Be transferred to another flight on the same or another airline, in the same class
      – Be given meals and lodging if the delay extends beyond a reasonable time
      – Be given the opportunity to cancel and receive their full ticket price back as compensation if they cannot or do not want to replane or transfer.

      • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

        Oh, and you took the Delta rep’s word for it?

        How… refreshingly naive.

  10. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    Am I the only one who remembers when we were all screaming that this new rule was so lacking that it would hardly ever apply in real-world cases?

    The fact that airlines violated it anyway, FIVE TIMES in ONE MONTH tells you something, doesn’t it?

  11. JustLurking says:

    Can we please stop calling it a “Tarmac” delay? Its a ramp, people, a RAMP

  12. NumberSix says:

    On the surface, maybe not. It sounds like they tried to deal with the problems in good faith.

  13. dg says:

    Yes – fine them. Fine them every time. That’s the only way they are going to learn that it’s not a “cost of doing business” to let people wait on the tarmac. Figure out how many flights you can reasonably handle, and do that. Don’t keep “double booking” the tarmac and saying “F’ em… let ’em wait”

    • Randell says:

      The airlines DO NOT double book the tarmac. That is 100% airport and air traffic that decides when a plane can go. Here’s a little bit of a clue for you. Imagine owning an airline, getting YOUR airplanes int he air as fast as possible would be YOUR goal. The airports goal is to have an many planes as possible (more revenue for the airport) lined up to go. Air traffic control is the one int the equation who says, yes, you cna go now, no you can’t go yet, we think it will be X amount of time. By the way, many planes could push back faster if not for idiots trying to save a few bucks by packing their carry on baggage so full that it is tearing at the seams and will not fit iin an overhead, as they spend twenty minutes ramming it in, and slamming the overhead bin door to make it shut.