United Airlines is confident that they’ve overcome their operational issues from last year but the past keeps coming back to haunt them. The US Department of Transportation (DoT) issued a record $1.1 million fine against the carrier for violations of the "3-hour rule" related to delays experienced by nearly 1,000 passengers on 13 flights last July at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The penalty is still well below the maximum fee of $27,500 per affected passenger but it still has had quite an impact on the carrier. Of the $1.1 million, $475,000 will be paid to the federal government. The balance was credited back to the carrier by the DoT based on payments made to passengers affected by the delays and for improvements made at the airport to help prevent a repeat incident.
The troubles started for United on July 13, 2012 when thunderstorms rolled through the Chicago area, causing major delays at O’Hare. Operations were limited at the airport and the number of planes on the ground quickly overwhelmed the gate space available to the airline. Combined with lightning in the area which halted operations on four different occasions the stage was set for major problems. Ultimately these 13 flights saw delays over 3 hours—the longest was 4:17—and two of the flights had lavatory issues during the delays.
The DoT has shown some leniency in enforcement of the rule since its inception in early 2010; no airline has been fined the maximum allowable. The ruling against United was relatively aggressive, however, based on prior incidents. It seems from the DoT comments on the fine that the main basis for the severity of the punishment is not that United had the delays but that they did not implement their DoT-mandated mitigation plan once things started to spiral out of control. Rather than attempt to park multiple planes at some gates, borrow gates from other airlines, or quickly cycle planes through the gates in an unloading-only manner, the airline essentially continued normal operations that day. This lack of effort, more than the actual failings, appears to have triggered the level of response seen.
It is true that the initial troubles started with weather, something that United Airlines has no control over. As conditions deteriorated, however, the actions taken—or not taken—by the airline had a direct impact on their ability to manage the operations at their hub. Last July the decisions made were bad ones, both for passengers and ultimately for the company. Hopefully this penalty is an incentive for them to make better decisions in the future.
Photo credit: United Airlines via Dreamstime.com