United Airlines aircraft at LAX. Photo by AirlineReporter.com

United Airlines aircraft at LAX. Photo by AirlineReporter.com

If you keep up with my opinions, you know I am not a huge fan of the three hour tarmac delay rule. I am all for passengers being treated correctly, but not for forcing airlines to do what is not always best for passengers. What happens when an airline honestly thinks they break the three hour tarmac rule and reports it to the Department of Transportation (DOT)? They get fined, that’s what. Dan Webb on his blog, Things in the Sky, took a look at recent incidents involving United, the DOT, the three hour fine, and craziness.

Remember, this is still a new rule that went into affect in April. If an airline violates the rule, it could mean huge fines.  How huge? Like $27,500.00 per passenger huge.  With the rule being new and the consequences being severe, airlines are going to be cautious to not only obey the rule, but be sure to properly report when they break it.

On May 26th of this year, four mainline (non-United Express) flights bound for Denver had to be diverted to Colorado Springs due to poor weather. After hitting the two hour mark, flight attendants made sure that passengers were being fed (via snack foods), which is following the proper procedure of the three hour rule. But feeding passengers stuck on the tarmac is not something new for United…it is something they would have normally done even before the rule.

Not too long after, air stairs and buses were pulled up to allow passengers to get off, if they wanted to. Some decided to de-plane, but most stayed on board. Since the aircraft was away from the gate for more than three hours, United reported the incidents to the DOT.

The DOT reviewed the report, looking to see if they needed to issue a hefty fine. They realized that even though the aircraft were sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours, United fed the passengers and gave them the choice to get off the plane. Cool…no harm, no foul, no rules broken. Oh but wait! The DOT decided to fine United $12,000.00 for filing a false report…say what?

I might not agree with this tarmac rule, but I understand where it is coming from. The goal is to make sure that those “evil” airlines don’t hold passengers captive in an airplane for entirely too long. United followed the rule, giving passengers a choice. One way or another everyone safely made it to their destination. The last plane left after a 4hr 40min delay, but all four made it to Denver that day.  It seems crazy that the DOT would issue a fine for United being overly cautious on a very new rule that has big consequences.

I agree if an airline had no reason to issue the report and genuinely wasted the DOT’s time, they should be fined. However, United was trying to be transparent. Luckily for them, they only have to pay $6000.00 of the fine as long as they behave themselves and don’t do this again.

I spoke with United about this situation and they told me, “It is unfortunate that our effort to be fully transparent with the DOT resulted in our inadvertently reporting four flight delays where we complied with regulations and with our own procedures to ensure the comfort and safety of our customers and employees.”

There are a lot of people out there saying the tarmac rule is so far a success. I entirely disagree and await this busy winter season to see how the rule works out.

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EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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