United Airlines
Photograph ©2017 by Brian Cohen.

United Airlines Fined $1.9 Million For Violating Ground Delay Rule

This is the largest fine issued in the history of the Department of Transportation.

The Department of Transportation of the United States issued a fine of $1.9 million to United Airlines for violating federal statutes which pertain to violations of lengthy delays at airports — whether on the runway, taxiway, apron, or at the gate — and is the largest fine issued in the history of the federal agency for what it calls its “tarmac delay” rules.

United Airlines Fined $1.9 Million For Violating Ground Delay Rule

Atlanta airport control tower
Photograph ©2011 by Brian Cohen.

An extensive investigation by the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection of the Department of Transportation found that a total of 3,218 passengers of 20 domestic flights and five international flights were affected by lengthy delays at various airports throughout the United States between December of 2015 and February of 2021.

“Specifically, the carrier permitted flights to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours for the domestic flights and more than four hours for the international flights without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane”, according to this official consent order 2021-9-21 by the Department of Transportation. “The carrier also failed to have sufficient resources to implement its contingency plan for lengthy tarmac delays. This order directs United to cease and desist from future similar violations of Part 259 and sections 41712 and 42301 and assesses United $1.9 million in civil penalties.”

Additionally, United Airlines was also ordered to cease and desist from committing similar violations in the future.

“Under the DOT tarmac delay rule, airlines operating aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats are prohibited from allowing their domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours at U.S. airports and their international flights to remain on the tarmac for more than four hours at U.S. airports without giving passengers an opportunity to leave the plane”, according to this official press release from the Department of Transportation of the United States, which was issued on Friday, September 24, 2021. “The rule prohibiting long tarmac delays for domestic flights took effect 2010 and was expanded to include international flights in 2011. An exception exists for departure delays if the airline begins to return the aircraft to a suitable disembarkation point in order to deplane passengers by those times. An exception to the time limit is also allowed for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons. The rule also requires 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 tarmac delay rule applies only to delays which occur at airports within the United States. Additionally, only “covered carriers” — which are airlines that operate at least one airplane with a seating capacity of a minimum of 30 passenger seats to, from, or within the United States — to comply with the rule. A delay occurs when an airplane on the ground is either awaiting takeoff or has just landed; and passengers do not have the opportunity to get off of the airplane.

Although airlines are not required to provide passengers aboard their airplanes with a full meal in the event of a lengthy delay on the ground, airlines must at least provide a snack — such as a granola bar — and drinking water no later than two hours after the aircraft leaves the gate in the case of a departure; or touches down in the case of an arrival.

During a lengthy delay on the ground, airlines are also required to provide passengers with:

  • Working toilets
  • Comfortable cabin temperatures
  • Adequate medical attention, if needed

Final Boarding Call

Airplanes Lined Up on Runway
Photograph ©2008 by Brian Cohen.

Back in April of 2013, the Department of Transportation was reviewing a motion which was filed by two airline industry associations — specifically, Airlines for America and the Regional Airline Association — which are requesting a moratorium on a rule first imposed in 2009 pertaining to protecting passengers from being confined in an airplane on the ground at an airport in the United States for greater than three hours during a delay.

Perhaps the fine of $1.9 million which United Airlines is required to pay will help deter other airlines in the future from squeezing out lengthy delays that inconvenience passengers in less than ideal conditions.

The aviation consumer protection Internet web site of the Department of Transportation can help you understanding your rights as a traveler; and if you encounter a problem or issue, you may file a complaint against an airline with the Department of Transportation here.

On a slightly different topic, should we — or the Department of Transportation — even use the term tarmac anymore?

All photographs ©2008, ©2011, and ©2017 by Brian Cohen.


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