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United Follows Tarmac Delay Rules, Fined Anyway

This past May, United found itself in a tarmac delay situation in Colorado Springs. Four planes heading for Denver were diverted due to weather. The planes landed, but had nowhere to go. As minutes turned into hours, United served its passengers water and snacks, and eventually brought runway stairs and buses so passengers could de-plane if they wished (many did).

After four hours and forty minutes on the tarmac, the planes were off the ground and heading toward Denver. United reported the incident to the Department of Transportation (DOT), despite believing it had acted within the terms of the DOT’s tarmac delay rules.

The DOT agreed—United did everything properly. And since United did everything correctly, there was no need for the report the airline filed. So the DOT decided to fine the airline $12,000 for filing the report, which it says led to a costly and ultimately unnecessary investigation of the delays. (United only has to pay half the fine, assuming it follows the reporting rules going forward.)

The sound you just heard was my face hitting my palm.

The DOT’s tarmac delay rules have been criticized and challenged since the day they were announced, so you’d think the agency would place a high priority on legitimizing the rules through careful, logical enforcement. But it’s fair to say this fine is neither careful nor logical.

Why couldn’t the DOT simply say, “Thanks, United, but in the future there’s no need for a report when you do things correctly”? Considering this incident happened in May, just weeks after the new rules took effect, you’d think the DOT could give United a free pass, especially when it properly implemented the important aspects of the tarmac policy.

One could argue that, for all practical purposes, that’s exactly what United did. After all, $6,000 is virtually nothing to an airline. It’s a paper cut, if anything. But the point is that the DOT chose to give United that paper cut in public, chose to make an example of an airline that did everything right and over-reported out of an abundance of caution.

In my opinion, the DOT’s response to this was flat-out backwards. It should have sent a private letter to United, in which it praised the airline for handling the delay properly and explained why the report was unnecessary. The DOT should also have sent a similar letter to other carriers, reiterating the reporting process and making clear that future reporting errors would be fined. That’s it.

Instead, the agency comes off looking like an incoherent bully, which is not ideal for an agency desperately trying to justify a dubious policy.

(Editor’s Note: This isn’t the first fine for unnecessary tarmac delay reporting. Pinnacle Airlines was fined $5,000 for a similar infraction.)

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