The U.S. government on Thursday fined Southwest Airlines Co. $1.6 million in what it said was the biggest civil penalty levied against an airline for violating rules barring long waits for passengers in planes on the runway. The Transportation Department said Southwest had failed to abide by the rules last January when 16 of its aircraft were delayed on the tarmac at Chicago Midway International Airport.
Passengers were not given the chance to get off the planes after three hours, and the airline did not have enough staff in place to avoid the delays, it said. "We have aggressively enforced, and will continue to aggressively enforce, our tarmac delay rule to ensure carriers have adequate resources to minimize passengers' exposure to lengthy tarmac delays," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
Southwest pointed to severe weather that it said hampered its efforts in the incident. "We are disappointed that the government would seek additional money, after the enormous penalties imposed on Southwest by Mother Nature during the January 2014 winter storms," the airline said in a statement, adding that the department did credit it for taking voluntary steps to fix its operations before issuing the order.
Federal rules adopted in 2009 bar airlines from holding passengers on a runway for more than three hours without offering them a chance to leave, although exceptions for safety and security are allowed. The $1.6 million penalty is the largest to date out of the 17 such fines it has issued, the department said.