Regional Carrier Fined $900,000 for Tarmac Delays

An affiliate of American Airlines’ parent AMR (NYSE:AMR) was fined $900,000 by the U.S. government on Monday in what marked the U.S. Transportation Department’s first major crackdown on tarmac delays using recently passed regulation.

The regional carrier, American Eagle, was charged for extended delays that affected more than 600 people on 15 flights last May in Chicago. The delays were up to 225 minutes, which is about 45 minutes beyond the limit.

Besides being one of the first times the new regulation has been enforced, the fine also represents one of the largest ever levied by the Transportation Department.

“We put the tarmac rule in place to protect passengers, and we take any violation very seriously,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“We put the tarmac rule in place to protect passengers, and we take any violation very seriously.”

- U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

“We will work to ensure that airlines and airports coordinate their resources and plans to avoid keeping passengers delayed on the tarmac,” he said.

The fine comes just two weeks after JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) stranded 123 passengers on a tarmac in Connecticut for seven hours, and as tighter regulations seek to bring an end to excessive tarmac wait times that have in some cases left passengers on board for hours without access to food, water or bathrooms.

JetBlue met with Transportation Department officials last week to explain why five of its flights were diverted to Hartford’s Bradley airport during the freak snowstorm over Halloween weekend.

Under the new DOT rules, U.S. airlines operating aircraft with 30 or more passengers are prohibited from keeping their domestic flights on the tarmac for more than three hours without giving passengers an opportunity to deplane.

As part of a settlement, American Eagle was ordered to refrain from future violations by limiting tarmac delays to three hours. It was also instructed to use more than a quarter of the fine to compensate stranded passengers through refunded fares and frequent flyer mile awards.

American Eagle said in a statement that the extended delays on May 29 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport were due to bad weather that worsened congestion. However, an investigation by the DOT’s aviation enforcement officer concluded that while the airline had a procedure in place to bring passengers back to the gate, the carrier was late in implementing the plan, thus violating the rule.

The DOT boasted the success of the new tarmac regulations, noting that in the first 12 months after the there-hour limit was in effect, only 20 tarmac delays of more than three hours were reported by the largest U.S. airlines. In contrast, there were 693 delays, including 105 that were longer than four hours, in the years leading up to the new rule.