United Cops Record Fine for Stranding Passengers on Tarmac

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Shutterstock / Songquan Deng

United Airlines has received a hefty penalty for keeping passengers waiting on airplanes for hours on end while their flights were delayed. The Department of Transportation fined the carrier $1.1 million-the biggest fine of its kind so far-for tarmac delays that happened at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last year.

Rules that were put in place in 2010 state that airlines will be penalized if they keep passengers waiting around on the tarmac for more than three hours. In United’s case, all the rule breaking happened on one particularly stormy day when 13 separate United flights were delayed because of thunder and lighting. According to the rules, United was meant to give passengers the chance to get off the plane as it was obvious flights would be held up. But the carrier didn’t. And to top it off, bathrooms on the some of the delayed planes weren’t working, leaving passengers in the lurch.The Department of Transportation says United didn’t do a very good job handling the situation and didn’t reach out to other airport personnel for help. The Department of Transportation also slammed the airline for not having a good plan in place to deal with weather-related problems in general. Some of the money from the fine will go to passengers affected by the delays, while another portion will go towards creating a tracking system at O’Hare so United can better monitor its planes.

What’s Making Chinese Travelers So Angry?

Air travel delays in China are becoming epidemic. According to an article published today in Time, only 18 percent of flights departing from Beijing in June took off on time.

Chinese travelers are understandably frustrated with this problem, but their collective anger has taken a turn for the worse. Physical altercations, as seen in the video above, and arguments between travelers and airline workers have been documented. The latest protest tactic enacted by the travelers affected by the prevalent delays are sit-ins: passengers have been refusing to leave grounded planes that were subject to delay until compensated for the inconvenience. On July 28 in Dalian, passengers on two separate planes allegedly refused to exit and stayed put in their seats instead.

But staging a sit-in or becoming aggressive toward airline employees isn’t going to affect the problem because the core of the problem is centered in the very infrastructure of Chinese air travel: poor management by airline operators. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has attributed a whopping 42 percent of delays to mismanaged operations of airline carriers –- a problem that trickles down to individual flights from the top of the corporate airline pyramid, not the other way around.

The problem has gotten so bad some airlines are training their crews to defend themselves.
Chinese Airlines Train Crew in Kung Fu to Defend From Irate Passengers

Shocking: Airlines have no long tarmac delays, world doesn’t end

Airlines and tarmac delaysFor the second month in a row, the world hasn’t ended. The threat of heavy fines has ensured that the airlines haven’t kept passengers trapped in the cabin on the tarmac for more than three hours at a time, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. October and November were good months for passengers, now that airlines are being held accountable. These are the only two months in which the airlines haven’t had tarmac delays since the DOT began keeping score back in October 2008.

So, the lobbyists and industry folks were wrong. They forecasted logistical catastrophe. Once again, this has not happened. And, it happened to coincide with record profits for the U.S. airline industry, which means that doing the right thing for passengers is probably good for business, too.

There have been a mere 12 tarmac delays of more than three hours from May 2010 through November 2010. For the same period the year before, there were 550. So, let’s be realistic: the airlines were more than a little lazy in 2009. When the threat of severe fines cause that drastic an improvement, the implication is that the airlines should have been doing a better job on their own.Of course, those representing the airline industry believed that the threat of fines would lead to a heavy rate of flight cancellation, as airlines would rather give up than risk having to pay large tabs to the government. Of course, this didn’t happen. In November, U.S. carriers posted a cancellation rate of 0.7 percent. Sure, it’s up from 0.5 percent, which is negligible, but it’s also down from 0.97 percent in October. The number of tarmac delays lasting more than two hours ticked slightly higher, from 224 for the May-to-November period in 2009 to 241 for the same seven months this year. There were 11 canceled flights in November 2010, up from none the previous November.

So, that’s a lot of canceled flights relative to the prior November, but how big a deal is it? Eleven canceled flights relative to more than 500 long tarmac delays shed? Those are pretty good numbers, suggesting the government can pass a useful law every now and then.

[photo by Simon_sees via Flickr]

Airlines WRONG: Lengthy airport delays fall to zero!

airlines wrong about airport delaysNow that the stakes are high enough to matter, airlines are finally getting their collective act together. The U.S. Department of Transportation just announced that there were no tarmac delays of loner than three hours in October for the largest airlines in the United States.

You read that right: none. And, the air transportation industry did not fall apart. It did not fail to operate. Flights took off and landed … and passengers didn’t have to spend absurd amounts breathing stale cabin air while hanging out with the hope that Godot would finally show up.

This represents a drop from 11 in October 2009. In case you were wondering if airlines canceled flights rather than risk a fine of $27,500 per passenger for airport delays, note that the cancellation rate actually fell slightly year over year.

So, how much did the rate fall?


The largest airlines canceled 0.97 percent of scheduled domestic flights in October 2010, down from 0.99 the previous year. Even if you call this no change … well, that’s the point. With the stricter rules in place, there was virtually no change in cancellations.

October 2010 was the first month there were no tarmac delays of greater than three hours since the DOT started keeping score in October 2008. And, from May to October, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were only 12 tarmac delays of more than three hours, based on data for 18 airlines. For the same period in 2009, there were 546.

Meanwhile, on-time performance improved rather dramatically from October 2009 to 2010, from 77.3 percent to 83.8 percent. That’s off a bit from 85.1 percent in September 2010, but still an indication that the industry is getting significantly better.

Chronic delays were down as all. The DOT reports:

At the end of October, there was only one flight that was chronically delayed – more than 30 minutes late more than 50 percent of the time – for three consecutive months. There were no other flights chronically delayed for two consecutive months and no chronically delayed flights for four consecutive months or more.

Just shy of 5 percent of flight delays were caused by aviation system delays, with 5.54 percent caused by aircraft arriving late. The number of delays within the airlines’ control (e.g., because of maintenance or crew problems) increased to 4.44 percent from 3.99 percent in September.

So, where can you see the real implications of all this? Well, let’s take a look at the number of complaints about airline service. It seems the threat of heavy fines is making these companies more responsive to their customers. The 749 complaints the DOT received from passengers represents a 16.5 percent decline year over year.

I know nobody wants to admit that the system works, but I guess it made air travel a bit more tolerable.

[photo by TheeErin via Flickr]

Smelly radar facility causes delays at New York City airports

The New York City-area airport radar facility stinks. No, it really does (at least, it did last night). Stop thinking about delays on the tarmac and circling each of the three airports near or in the city. Instead, focus on your nose. The radar facility was evacuated briefly when the smell of gas was reported. Unsurprisingly, this caused flights to be delayed. According to the FAA, the evacuation occurred at 6:45 PM last night. To keep things moving in the skies, 25 air traffic controllers stayed at their posts.

The staff was able to get back into the facility an hour later, and the cause of the smell as never determined.

[photo by Joi via Flickr]