The federal government has imposed a hefty fine of $4.1 million on American Airlines for numerous instances of passengers being trapped on planes during extended ground delays. This penalty, announced by the Department of Transportation (DOT) on Monday, marks the largest fine of its kind against an airline since the implementation of regulations governing long ground delays nearly a decade ago.
According to a consent order settling the case, American Airlines is required to pay half of the fine within the next 30 days. However, the DOT granted the airline credit for the remaining half, totaling just over $2 million, due to compensation it had already provided to affected passengers. The investigation conducted by the department unveiled 43 domestic flights from 2018 to 2021 in which American Airlines failed to allow nearly 5,821 passengers to deplane during ground delays that exceeded three hours.
Exceptions to the rule exist, allowing airlines to justify extended delays for safety and security reasons. However, the DOT determined that none of these exceptions applied to the flights identified in the investigation. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expressed his commitment to holding airlines accountable under consumer-protection laws, stating, "This is the latest action in our continued drive to enforce the rights of airline passengers."
In response, American Airlines affirmed its efforts to prevent prolonged ground delays and highlighted that the 43 flights in question represented less than 1% of the approximately 7.7 million flights operated by the airline and its subsidiary, American Eagle, during the specified period. The company acknowledged providing "substantial compensation" to the affected passengers and emphasized its increased management focus on avoiding delays.
Many of the delayed flights primarily occurred at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where American Airlines holds a dominant position. Additional instances took place in San Antonio and Houston when flights heading to Dallas-Fort Worth were diverted. The airline attributed several of the delays to thunderstorms, which hindered efficient gate management for passenger disembarkation. However, the airline did highlight its dissatisfaction with delays experienced at Reagan Washington National Airport during a winter storm in January 2019 but ultimately accepted the settlement outlined in the consent order.
The DOT's announcement of the fine brings attention to the violation of its rule against keeping passengers confined on planes during tarmac delays lasting three hours or more. The agency stated that American Airlines unlawfully disregarded this regulation, and passengers are owed over $2.5 billion in refunds related to these delays. This civil penalty represents the largest ever imposed for tarmac delay violations, according to the DOT.
While federal rules do allow for exceptions to detaining passengers on departing flights, such as ensuring safety, the investigation conducted by the agency's Office of Aviation Consumer Protection determined that none of these exceptions were applicable to the 43 identified flights. Additionally, the airline failed to provide passengers with food or water, as required by the DOT, during the extended delays.
Most notably, the delays affected approximately 5,800 passengers, with the majority occurring at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. American Airlines acknowledged that these delays were primarily a result of exceptional weather events but stressed that they represented a minute portion of the overall flight operations during the specified timeframe. The airline expressed its apologies to the affected customers and regretted any inconvenience caused.
The DOT remains committed to safeguarding consumer rights and ensuring accountability within the airline industry, as stated by the agency: "Whether the issue is extreme tarmac delays or problems getting refunds, DOT will continue to protect consumers and hold airlines accountable.".
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