The Department of Transportation has fined United Airlines $1.9 million for violations of tarmac delay rules, the largest ever fine for such infractions. According to DOT, the delays took place between December 2015 and February 2021, affecting a total of some 3,218 passengers over the period.
Based on what DOT called “an extensive investigation by the department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection,” the agency found the carrier “allowed 20 domestic flights and five international flights at various airports throughout the United States to remain on the tarmac for a lengthy period of time without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane.”
DOT tarmac delay rules apply to flights at US airports. If a flight is awaiting takeoff or once the flight has landed, the airline is required to begin to move the airplane to a location where passengers can safely get off after a delay of no more than 3 hours for domestic flights and 4 hours for international flights.
The rules also require airlines “to provide adequate food and water, ensure that lavatories are working and, if necessary, provide medical attention to passengers during long tarmac delays.” The rules cover any carrier that operates at least one aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats.
In addition to being fined, United was ordered “to cease and desist from future similar violations.”
Responding to the DOT ruling, United noted that “ultimately only 25 out of nearly eight million flights operated by United and its United Express partners during that time have been determined by the department to warrant enforcement action.”
In a statement, the airline also said, “Safety is always its first priority, and the vast majority of flights in this consent order were diversions due to severe weather at the destination airport or en route to the destination.”
Nonetheless, the carrier said it is “committed to full compliance with the department’s lengthy tarmac delay laws.”
United also said that since 2015, “it has made substantial improvements and investments in its management of diversions,” including the development of a diversion monitoring system to identify all available airports for a flight impacted by weather.
For customers, the airline is piloting ConnectionSaver, a downloadable app that automatically identifies departing flights that can be held for passengers making tight connections.