United Airlines has been slapped with a total of $1.9 million in fines for avoidable tarmac delays in which the airline forced thousands of passengers to wait on planes for hours at a time.
The penalty is the largest ever of its kind since the Department of Transport (DOT) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced rules more than 10-years ago to address the annoying tarmac delay issue.
United was cited in 25 specific cases, 20 of which were domestic flights where passengers were trapped on planes for longer than three hours at a time. On five international flights, passengers were kept onboard delayed flights for at least four hours.
In total, 3,218 passengers were affected. The enforcement period runs from 2015 through 2020 and $750,000 of the fine will be used to compensate passengers.
A spokesperson for United said the airline had been making improvements to prevent tarmac delays and noted that the delays on all 25 of the flights highlighted by the DOT had occurred during severe weather.
United has since invested in technology that allows it to identify airports where it can make weather-related diversions so that passengers can get off delayed flights in compliance with federal rules.
“The safety of our customers and employees is always our first priority — particularly during severe weather,” United said in a statement. “We remain committed to fully meeting all DOT rules and will continue identifying and implementing improvements in how we manage difficult operating conditions while maintaining the safety of our customers and employees.”
Although the fines are the result of an agreed settlement with the DOT, the airline continues to dispute some of the facts.
“United believes that both it and the Department ultimately want what is best for passengers — to safely move passengers to their destinations and around adverse weather as quickly as possible,” a spokesperson noted.
“But, with regard to some of the flights in this order, United respectfully disagrees with the Department that enforcement action is warranted.”
United says the delayed flights represent a tiny fraction of the airline’s operations, having operated 8 million flights in the same timeframe.
Airlines are required to develop and publish tarmac delay policies that explain how passengers will be treated in the event of a delay before takeoff or after landing.
For flights departing from or landing into a U.S. airport, airlines are required to begin to move the airplane to a location where passengers can safely get off before 3 hours for domestic flights and 4 hours for international flights, according to the DOT.
Airlines are also required to supply snacks and water after two hours.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.
The tarmac rule permits fines up to $27,500 per passenger, so the 3218 affected pax should equate to a total fine of $88 million. Instead, the FAA has imposed a measly fine of $1.9 million.