Assessing Fines For Tarmac Delay, DOT Sets Precedents
The U.S. Department of Transportation today issued "precedent-setting" fines against Continental Airlines, Mesaba Airlines and ExpressJet totaling $175,000 for their involvement in an August delay that left 47 passengers stranded in an aircraft overnight on a runway in Rochester, Minn.
The fines represent the first time DOT has penalized a carrier for subjecting passengers to extended tarmac delays and, in the case of Mesaba, the only instance on record of an airline serving as the ground handler for another carrier being "punished for failing to properly help passengers leave an aircraft during an unreasonably long tarmac delay."
"I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers," Transportation secretary Ray LaHood said. "We will also use what we have learned from this investigation to strengthen protections for airline passengers subjected to long tarmac delays."
DOT levied fines of $50,000 each against Continental and ExpressJet, which operated the Continental Express flight that remained on the tarmac for what DOT called an "unreasonable period of time." DOT also penalized Mesaba, which handled ground services for the flight, $75,000 "for its role in the incident."
The Aug. 8 flight, bound to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport from Houston, hit severe weather, and after diverting to Rochester landed at the airport at 12:30 a.m. "The passengers were stranded aboard the aircraft until approximately 6:15 a.m. when they were finally deplaned into the terminal," DOT said.
DOT said it is penalizing the carriers for "unfair and deceptive practices in air transportation for their respective roles in the incident." DOT fined Continental and ExpressJet since the latter did not follow a Continental "customer service commitment" that requires some action—which could include deplaning if departure is not anticipated—after three hours of waiting on the tarmac.
While ExpressJet operated the flight, DOT said Continental holds responsibility since it was marketed as Continental flight. In addition to the fine, "Continental also provided a full refund to each passenger and also offered each passenger additional compensation to tangibly acknowledge their time and discomfort," DOT said.
Mesaba, the only carrier staffing the airport at the time the plane landed, told the ExpressJet pilot that passengers "could not enter the terminal because there were no Transportation Security Administration screeners on duty at that hour," according to DOT, which found "TSA rules would have allowed the passengers to enter the airport as long as they remained in a sterile area."
The Business Travel Coalition—an advocate for a passenger bill of rights, which among other things would require carriers to allow passengers to deplane if they are on the tarmac for more than three hours—applauded DOT's enforcement.
"This is extraordinary and very welcome leadership from Secretary LaHood. BTC has been testifying since 1999 that more aggressive leadership and enforcement from DOT, combined with serious reform by the airlines at the industry level, would avoid the need for congressional intervention with passenger rights legislation," BTC chairman Kevin Mitchell said. "We are heartened that DOT will include lessons learned in its investigation to strengthen flyers' rights in its final rule. Hopefully, this will be the catalyst the airlines need to finally move to address this festering problem."