American Airlines has been hit with a $4.1 million fine, the largest ever for violating the Department of Transportation’s delay rules and keeping thousands of customers stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours without letting them deplane and, in one case, failing to provide food or water to the people stuck onboard.
More than 5,800 passengers were stuck aboard one of 43 domestic flights that sat on a tarmac for more than three hours between 2018 and 2021, the DOT reported, most of which occurred at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, American Airlines’ hub.
U.S. law says airlines cannot keep passengers sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours before or after a domestic flight—or four hours for an international trip—and must provide passengers with water and a snack within two hours of the start of the delay.
While exceptions for safety and security do exist, the DOT said that none of the 43 American flights that violated the rule qualified for the exceptions.
The fine is the largest ever imposed on an airline for violating the tarmac rules, though American will only have to pay half of it—the DOT gave the airline $2.05 million in credit for the compensation it provided passengers aboard the stalled flights.
376. That’s how many tarmac delays of more than three hours were reported on domestic flights in 2022—more than twice as high as the 155 reported in 2021.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has regulated tarmac delays since 2010, one year after the Bureau of Transportation reported more than 500 delays of at least three hours on domestic flights, including one highly publicized delay that left passengers on the tarmac of Rochester International Airport in Minnesota overnight. The plane left Houston just before 9:30 p.m. for what should have been a two-hour and 45-minute flight to Minneapolis, but didn’t arrive in the city until 11 a.m. the next day after the plane was diverted to Rochester due to thunderstorms and left sitting on the tarmac for seven hours. The rules now say any flight delayed for more than three hours must return to the gate and let passengers deplane, water and snacks must be provided and there must be a working restroom on board. Airlines can be fined up to $27,500 for each passenger onboard a flight that violates the rules.
The experiences of passengers who sat on a United Airlines flight for more than seven hours earlier this summer went viral on TikTok and Facebook and the flight is now the subject of a DOT investigation. Passengers at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey sat on the tarmac for seven hours before their flight to Italy was ultimately canceled, passengers reported, and they were given no food or water in the time they sat in “hot, thick” heat without air conditioning, one passenger said on TikTok. One woman passed out and someone else had a panic attack while stuck onboard, passengers said.
“People were taking off their shirts, and women were in sports bras, it was just so hot. It became unbearable and there was no ventilation,” one passenger is heard telling United Airlines gate personnel in a now-viral TikTok. “Nobody even offered water.”