First Airline Fine for Tarmac Delay

by Kim Smiley

The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently issued the first fine for violating new rules that limit how long passengers can be kept onboard a plane waiting on the tarmac. The new regulations, commonly called the tarmac delay rule, state that passengers may not be kept onboard a plane waiting on the runway for more than 3 hours without being given the opportunity to deplane.  The rules also require that airlines provide adequate food and drinking water for passengers within 2 hours of a plane being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories.  The tarmac delay rule, which went in effect April 2010, was created following several incidents where passengers were kept onboard airplanes for long periods of time.

The incident that resulted in a fine is not the first violation of the 3 hour rule, but this is the first time the DOT has taken the step of issuing a fine.  The potential fees for violating the rules are substantial.  Airlines can be fined $27,500 per passenger when the tarmac delay is beyond 3 hours.  This quickly adds up, especially if multiple flights are involved.  In this example, 15 American Eagle flights were delayed beyond the 3 hour limit on May 29, 2011 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.   608 passengers were affected and American Airlines was fined a whopping $900,000.

What happened?  How were so many flights on the tarmac so long?

This example can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a method for performing a visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map is built by determining the cause-and-effect relationships between all the causes that contributed to an incident.  Click on “Download PDF” above to view a high level Cause Map of this incident.

As with many airline delays, inclement weather played a major role in this incident.  Flights had been delayed taking off from O’Hare and planes that were scheduled to have departed were still sitting at the gates.  Planes that landed had nowhere to go so they sat on the tarmac waiting for an open gate.

Passengers were not given an opportunity to deplane within 3 hours.  The airline has procedures to get passengers off the planes even if the planes themselves were stuck waiting on the tarmac, but the procedures were not implemented within the 3 hour time limit.  If there was no delay limit, an airline couldn’t violate it so the new creation of the tarmac delay role is also a cause to consider in this incident.

It will be interesting to see how this large, first of its kind fine affects the airline industry as a whole.   Statistics show that the new rules have successfully reduced long tarmac delays.  The first year that the rule was in effect, airlines reported only 20 tarmac delays of more than 3 hours, but in the 12 months prior to rule there were 693 delays of more than 3 hours.  But this improvement may come at a high cost.  Especially now that the DOT has shown that they are willing to issue fines, industry analysts are warning that a possible unintended consequence of the new tarmac will be more canceled flights.  The fines are so hefty that airlines may cancel entire flights rather than risk violating the tarmac delay rules, which would obviously have an impact on travelers.  Only time will tell how the new rules will affect airline travel.