WASHINGTON — The government's $900,000 fine Monday against an American Airlines affiliate for holding hundreds of passengers on board a small jet for hours on an airport tarmac may serve as a deterrent to future such incidents. But industry analysts warned that may come with the price of more canceled flights.
Even before the fine against American Eagle Airlines, airlines had canceled more flights to avoid pushing up against the new three-hour limit on tarmac delays the Department of Transportation imposed 20 months ago. Now, cancellations will shoot up even more, said airline analyst Michael Boyd.
"If there's a 20 percent chance of this happening, an airline will cancel," Boyd said, because of the potential for huge fines.
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 an action from the DOT on a similar incident at the Hartford, Conn., airport during a freak snowstorm in October.
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.
The fine imposed on American Eagle was the largest penalty 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. 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 planes on the tarmac 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, leaving passengers stuck aboard the planes waiting on the tarmac.
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 flier 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.