United fined $1.1 million for one day of tarmac delays

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The U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has fined United Airlines $1.1 million for lengthy tarmac delays that took place at Chicago-O’Hare International Airport on July 13, 2012.

The DOT said it is the largest fine assessed for a tarmac-delay violation since the rule limiting long tarmac delays took effect in April 2010.

Of the $1.1 million, United will pay the United States $475,000; the remainder covers mitigation measures for affected passengers and corrective actions by United to enhance future compliance with tarmac-delay requirements.

United is being fined for 13 delays that took place on a day when severe thunderstorms and lightning caused several ramp closures and flight disruptions at O’Hare. At one point during the day, there were twice as many planes on the ground than normally are during peak travel periods, the DOT said.

Delays by United and United Express exceeded the three-hour limit for tarmac delays by as little as two minutes and as much as 77 minutes, the DOT said.

Although United had a contingency plan for tarmac delays, DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office said that the airline did not implement the plan during the delays, and that the plan was inadequate to cover foreseeable weather emergencies.

The Aviation Enforcement Office also said that United did not contact airport personnel or other airlines for assistance during the tarmac delays. It said that United operations personnel at certain points during the day did not respond to pilot communications.

Additionally, on two United Express flights, the lavatories were inoperable during part of the delays, the DOT said.

United said in the consent order that the unusually severe weather and cascading impact of ramp closures made it impossible to deplane flights. It said that air traffic control was using all runways “unpredictably” to land arriving flights, and that rules governing regional airlines further complicated the task of moving planes on the ground.

United said that its decisions were operational decisions made in the face of unforeseen and extremely unusual weather activity. United also stated that the ramp closures which precipitated the tarmac delays were necessary to ensure the safety of passengers and employees due to the observed risk of lightning strikes.

United acknowledged that 13 flights exceeded three hours on the tarmac. However, it said that United and its codeshare partners successfully deplaned 1,156 flights, or 98.5% of its total flights at O'Hare on July 13, without triggering the three-hour rule and also cancelled a total of 121 flights to ensure other passengers would not be subjected to extended waits on the tarmac.

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