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United Airlines fined $1.1 million for O’Hare tarmac delays, largest ever

United Airlines was fined $1.1 millifor tarmac delays O'Hare Airport July 2012. | AP

United Airlines was fined $1.1 million for tarmac delays at O'Hare Airport in July 2012. | AP

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Updated: November 27, 2013 6:08AM



United Airlines Inc. was fined a record $1.1 million Friday for stranding 939 passengers for more than three hours on the tarmac at O’Hare International Airport during a bout of severe storms.

Fifty-one of the trapped passengers were unable to access bathroom facilities during the last 1 1/2 hours of the “untenable gridlock” United passengers experienced on July 13, 2012, federal regulators found.

Thirteen flights — 11 inbound and 2 outbound — were stranded on the tarmac at O’Hare that day for an average of 3 1/2 hours, according to a consent order issued Friday by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Stalled the longest was a Shuttle America flight which held 61 passengers for almost 4 1/3 hours during severe thunder and lightning storms. United called the storms “unforeseen,’’ as the weather forecast called for only a 30 percent chance of rain that day.

The $1.1 million fine assessed by the U.S. Department of Transportation is the largest penalty since rules went into effect in 2010 limiting tarmac delays. Airlines are supposed to give passengers a chance to exit an aircraft if they are stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours.

“It is unacceptable for passengers to be stranded in planes on the tarmac for hours on end,’’ U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement Friday.

“We will continue to require airlines to adopt workable plans to protect passengers from lengthy tarmac delays and carry out these plans when necessary,” he said.

Federal regulators also ordered United to “cease and desist from future violations of the tarmac-delay rule.”

However, not everyone is a fan of the 2010 tarmac law. Transportation professor Aaron Gellman of the Northwestern University Transportation Center called it “ridiculous.’’

United “may have made some mistakes,’’ Gellman said, but “competition should be the regulator, not the government.’’

United argued that its actions that day “demonstrated that it puts safety first,’’ according to Friday’s consent order. Accessing the ground area around each plane, called ramps, to deplane passengers would have exposed passengers and O’Hare workers to “lightening risks,” the airline argued.

“We are committed to complying with the tarmac delay regulations and we continue to improve our procedures while maintaining the safety of our customers and coworkers,’’ United Airlines spokeswoman Mary Ryan said Friday.

Under an agreement announced Friday, United will pay $475,000 within 30 days. It was given credit for $185,000 in compensation already provided to passengers, as well as for the $440,000 cost of a new “surface management and surveillance system” to monitor aircraft locations on the airfield and prevent future delays.

U.S. Department of Transportation regulators found that the airline did not implement its contingency plan for tarmac delays on the day in question, and its plan was inadequate to cover what officials viewed as foreseeable weather emergencies.

They also blasted United for “its failure early in the incident to request assistance with deplaning passengers.” United did not contact O’Hare’s personnel for assistance when it closed the areas around ramps four times that day, and at times, “United personnel were not responsive to requests for gate assignments” during the bottleneck on the ground, federal regulators said.

In addition, a United decision not to divert to other airports resulted in “twice the number of aircraft on the ground compared to the aircraft present during a normal peak period [at O’Hare]. By that time, the number of arrivals exceeding departures had created untenable gridlock,’’ according to the consent order.

United argued that diversions can “substantially increase the workloads of both pilots and air traffic controllers,’”as well as result in “substantially greater inconvenience to passengers than tarmac delays,’’ according to the order.

Email: rrossi@suntimes.com

Twitter: @rosalindrossi



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