United Airline faces record fine for repeatedly breaking tarmac delay rules

Photo (c) fStop Images - Stephan Zirwes - Getty Images

Consumers have rights, but they don’t kick in until at least 3 hours after a plane has been stuck

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has handed down a record-breaking fine to United Airlines for repeatedly violating the tarmac delay rule. The airline is being forced to pay $1.9 million for its transgressions and has been given a stern warning not to cross the line again.

It appears the Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) has had its eye on United for a while. Regulators found that 20 of the company’s domestic flights and five of its international flights in recent years remained on the tarmac for a lengthy period of time without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane. 

What consumers should know about the tarmac rule

There are all sorts of things that can keep an airplane stuck on the tarmac and delay take-off -- weather, traffic, mechanical issues, security threats, and delays in getting crew members aboard being the usual culprits. If you ever get stuck in a tarmac delay, you have rights as a consumer. Here are some basics you should know:

How long can an airline keep passengers on a departing flight before it is required to start moving the airplane to a location where passengers can safely get off? “For flights departing from a U.S. airport, airlines with more than 30 passenger seats are required to begin to move the airplane to a location where passengers can safely get off before 3 hours for domestic flights and 4 hours for international flights,” is the DOT rule. However, one ConsumerAffairs reviewer intimated that the three-hour rule might be longer than it sensibly should be. 

“89 degrees in the plane and we have been sitting here for 2 hours and another 30 mins or more possibly. What makes it tough is that it is 89 degrees in the plane, lots of kids that are getting dehydrated and so am I. Water or anything is not forthcoming. What a service!,” E of Merritt Island, Florida, said in their review of United.

How long can an airline keep passengers on an arriving flight without providing an opportunity to get off of the airplane? “For flights landing at U.S. airports, airlines are required to provide passengers with an opportunity to safely get off of the airplane before 3 hours for domestic flights and 4 hours for international flights,” the DOT states.

However, there are exceptions to these requirements. The #1 exception to the time limit is for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons. The DOT says passengers should not exit the airplane unless the airline says that they can do so safely.

If you get off, there’s no requirement that forces the airline to let you back on. The sticky wicket in the DOT rule is that if an airline says you can get off the airplane during a tarmac delay and you choose to get off, the airline is not required to let you back on the airplane.

Food and water are required. The tarmac delay rule also requires airlines to provide "adequate food and water, ensure that lavatories are working and, if necessary, provide medical attention to passengers during long tarmac delays.”

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