WASHINGTON — Sometimes it seems like airline passengers just can't win: The government cracks down on airlines that keep people cooped up on planes that sit on airport tarmacs for endless hours, and carriers respond by canceling more flights to avoid hefty fines.
The Transportation Department's $900,000 fine Monday against an American Airlines regional affiliate for holding hundreds of passengers on board 15 planes for hours in Chicago earlier this year may only fuel more debate over whether the government's get-tough policy is making air travel better or worse for passengers.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has hailed as a success his department's three-hour limit on such tarmac delays. Between May 2010 and April 2011, the first 12 months after the time limit was in effect, airlines reported 20 tarmac delays of more than three hours, none of which was more than four hours long.
In contrast, during the 12 months before the rule took effect, airlines had 693 tarmac delays of more than three hours, and 105 of the delays were longer than four hours.
However, a recent Government Accountability Office report concluded, "The rule appears to be associated with an increased number of cancellations for thousands of additional passengers – far more than DOT initially predicted – including some who might not have experienced a tarmac delay."
With Monday's fine against American Eagle Airlines, the first imposed on an air carrier under new rule, cancellations will shoot up even more, airline analyst Michael Boyd said.
"If there's a 20 percent chance of this happening, an airline will cancel," Boyd said, because of the potential for massive fines.
Ken Quinn, a former Federal Aviation Administration chief counsel who now represents airlines, said the three-hour limit is "having an inadvertent and anti-consumer effect."?
Airlines that violate the rule can be fined as much as $27,500 per passenger, but transportation officials had held off fining air carriers in any of the several dozen instances where the rule has been broken until this week. Industry officials are watching for any action from DOT on a similar incident at the Hartford, Conn., airport during a freak snowstorm in October.
The fine imposed on American Eagle was the largest penalty to be paid by an airline in a consumer protection case not involving civil rights violations, although airlines have paid much higher fines for violating federal safety regulations.
The transportation department "understands that many of these instances are outside of an airline's control," said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major carriers. Sometimes, airports have a shortage of Customs officials on hand for international flights, or an airport may not have enough buses to transport passengers safely to the terminal, or experience other emergency shortages.
But officials apparently felt the case involving American Eagle was particularly egregious and wanted to send a warning to other carriers the week before Thanksgiving travel.
American Eagle kept passengers cooped up for more than three hours on 15 flights arriving at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on May 29, according to a settlement agreement between the department and the airline. A total of 608 passengers were aboard the delayed flights.
Poor weather that day had intermittently prevented scheduled flights from departing O'Hare, including American Eagle flights that were sitting at the airline's gates. But the carrier continued to send planes from other airports into O'Hare even though airline officials knew there were no gates for the planes. In some cases, the flight crews needed to enable American Eagle planes to leave gates, and make room for incoming flights, were stuck aboard the planes waiting on the tarmac with no way to get to the terminal.
American Eagle had a plan in place that might have avoided the gridlock, but failed to implement it until it was too late, the department said.
The airline must pay $650,000 of the fine within 30 days, the department said. But up to $250,000 can be credited for refunds, vouchers, and frequent flyer mile awards provided to the passengers on the 15 flights, as well as to passengers on future flights that violate the three-hour rule, the department said.
The new DOT rule requires that after three hours airlines must either return the plane to a gate or provide passengers who wish to disembark with some other means of safely getting off. Sometimes that means pulling up a stairway, allowing passengers off and taking them on buses to the terminal. The rule has since been extended to international flight delays, which are capped at four hours.
"We think airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly – before, during, and after their flights," LaHood said in a blog posted by his office. "The tarmac delay rule and vigilant enforcement by DOT are critical steps toward ensuring they are."
He said the department will "take any violation very seriously."
American Eagle said it has apologized to passengers and provided either travel vouchers or frequent flyer program mileage credit.
"We take our responsibility to comply with all of the department's requirements very seriously and have already put in place processes to avoid such an occurrence in the future," American Eagle President and CEO Dan Garton said in a statement.
American and American Eagle are owned by AMR Corp. of Fort Worth, Texas. AMR is in the process of spinning off American Eagle into a separate company.
In October, unusually severe weather and trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration's landing guidance systems at two New York-area airports caused 28 flights to be diverted to Hartford's Bradley International Airport, overwhelming the smaller airport. Passengers on as many as seven planes, including at least three JetBlue planes and an American Airlines plane, were stranded on the tarmac for seven hours or more.
The captain of one of the JetBlue flights could be heard pleading over his radio with authorities for help getting passengers, some of whom were becoming unruly, off the plane. The ordeal continued after they were eventually let off and had to spend the night on cots and chairs in terminals.
Greg Principato, head of the Airports Council International-North America, said FAA and airline officials set the airport up to fail by sending it more planes than it could handle. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said airlines decide which airport they will divert to when they can't land at their intended destination, not the FAA.
But Lott said it's important to recognize that it takes the FAA, airlines and airports working together to avoid such incidents.
To that end, LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt are hosting a forum on Nov. 30 for airline, airport and other industry officials to talk about practical ways to avoid more tarmac strandings.
The three-hour rule was prompted by a series of incidents in which passengers complained of being kept virtual prisoners on planes in sight of an airport terminal. In one famous incident on Valentine's Day 2007, snow and ice in the northeast led to JetBlue Airways stranding hundreds of passengers on 10 planes on the tarmac at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport for up to 10 1/2 hours.
In August 2009, 47 people were stuck overnight aboard a cramped Continental Express plane with a stinking toilet and crying babies after an employee for another airline refused to let them inside a closed airport terminal in Rochester, Minn., where the plane was diverted due to thunderstorms.
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Online:Department of Transportation – www.dot.gov