US Airlines to Get Fines for Tarmac Delays

Monday the Obama administration announced it will begin to fine U.S. airlines for subjecting domestic passengers to lengthy tarmac delays. This government's latest step addresses airline consumers' complaints after a series of high-profile incidents.

The new rule adopted by the Department of Transportation sets fines of up to $27,500 per passenger when airlines leave fliers stuck on a plane on the ground for more than three hours. Based on a delayed plane carrying 120 passengers, the fine could be $3.3 million. The rule would apply to planes with more than 30 seats.

The Transportation Department has rarely issued fines for tarmac delays. The first case in recent memory came last month when the DOT fined Continental Airlines Inc. and ExpressJet Holdings Inc. $50,000 each, and levied a $75,000 fine against Mesaba Airlines.

That stemmed from the airlines' poor handling of an August incident in which 47 passengers on a plane operated for Continental by ExpressJet were stranded for nearly six hours overnight at the airport in Rochester, Minn. Mesaba, a unit of Delta Air Lines Inc., provided the ground handling at the airport and didn't allow the passengers to get off the plane, The Wall Street Journal reports.

It was also reported, there were 1,100 tarmac delays of at least three hours between October 2008 and October 2009, government figures show. There were more than 7 million flights during that period.

In November, the Transportation Department proposed $175,000 in fines against Continental Airlines Inc, its ExpressJet Airlines affiliate and Mesaba Airlines, a unit of Delta Air Lines, for a nearly six-hour ground delay at Rochester, Minnesota, in August.

Overall flight delays cost U.S. airlines roughly $9.8 million in 2008, according to industry figures.

Shares of most major carriers were up slightly on Monday despite significant weekend cancellations and delays due to the Northeast snowstorm and higher oil prices. Analysts have been more positive about the sector recently, The New York Times reports.

Meanwhile, Congress and the Clinton administration tried to act after a January 1999 blizzard kept Northwest Airlines planes on the ground in Detroit, trapping passengers for seven hours. Some new regulations were put in place but most proposals died, including one that airlines pay passengers who are kept waiting on a runway for more than two hours.

The Bush administration and Congress returned to the issue three years ago after several high-profile strandings, including a snow and ice storm that led JetBlue Airways to leave planes full of passengers sitting on the tarmac at New York's Kennedy International Airport for nearly 11 hours.

After those incidents, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel recommended that airlines be required to set a limit on the time passengers have to wait out travel delays grounded inside an airplane.

A year ago, the Bush administration proposed airlines be required to have contingency plans for stranded passengers, but the proposal didn't include a specific time limit on how long passengers can be kept waiting. It was denounced as toothless by consumer advocates, The Associated Press reports.

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