United Airlines has been fined $1.1 million by the Department of Transportation for 13 lengthy flight delays that occured on a single stormy day at O’Hare International Airport last year.
It's the largest fine assessed by the government since a rule aiming to limit long delays went into effect in 2010. Still, it’s less than half the maximum possible penalty.
Under the rule, airlines can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger if a flight is stuck for more than three hours. There were a total of 939 passengers on the 13 flights, with a potential maximum fine of $2.6 million.
The affected United flights were all stuck on the tarmac on July 13, 2012, a day that severe thunderstorms and lightning hit the Chicago area. The storms caused massive traffic disruptions at the airport.
The delays by United and the regional airlines that fly under the United Express banner lasted between three hours and two minutes to four hours and seventeen minutes.
The rule requires airlines to give passengers the opportunity to get off the plane if takeoff is not imminent within three hours of doors first closing at the gate.
The DOT said that while United had a contingency plan for tarmac delays, it didn’t implement the plan on the day in question. DOT also said the Chicago-based airline’s plan was inadequate to account for weather emergencies where there are often many planes on the runway and few open gates.
The Transportation Department’s enforcement office also said United failed to contact airport personnel or other airlines for help during the situation. Making the situation worse, DOT said that two of the planes’ bathrooms were not working during part of the delay.
The $1.1 million fine consists of $475,000 United will pay the Treasury, $185,000 to impacted travelers and $485,000 to put in a system at O'Hare that will keep track of all its planes when they're on the ground.
United said in a statement that it is “committed to complying with the tarmac delay regulations and we continue to improve our procedures while maintaining the safety of our customers and co-workers.”