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United Airlines fined $1.1 million over tarmac delays

The government on Friday announced a record $1.1 million fine against United Airlines for more than a dozen tarmac delays that left passengers stuck in grounded planes for hours, in some cases without working lavatories.

The delays took place at Chicago-O’Hare International Airport on July 13, 2012, when severe thunderstorms and lightning caused several ramp closures.

U. S. Department of Transportation rules prohibit U.S. airlines from allowing domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours at U.S. airports without giving passengers an opportunity to leave the plane, but 13 United and United Express flights exceeded the three-hour limit that summer day, the government said.

Some went over the limit by as little as two minutes, and some by more than an hour, with lavatories out of commission on two United Express flights during part of the ordeal. A total of 939 fliers were impacted by the delays without the chance to deplane, according to the DOT.

“It is unacceptable for passengers to be stranded in planes on the tarmac for hours on end,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement. “We will continue to require airlines to adopt workable plans to protect passengers from lengthy tarmac delays and carry out these plans when necessary.” 

United had a contingency plan for tarmac delays, but the DOT found that the airline did not implement it during these delays and that the plan was inadequate.

The carrier told the government that it seeks to prevent tarmac delays whenever and wherever possible, according to the DOT consent order that outlines the fine.

“We are committed to complying with the tarmac delay regulations and we continue to improve our procedures while maintaining the safety of our customers and co-workers,” said United spokeswoman Mary Ryan in a statement to NBC News.

The airline won’t have to pay the full $1.1 million fine. Less than half of the penalty -- $475,000 -- is due within 30 days, but the rest is credited to United, including $185,000 for compensation the carrier paid to passengers and $440,000 for the cost of improvements United will make at O’Hare International Airport.

“The good news is that it’s a record fine,” said Paul Hudson, president of “They were, for the most part, either not fining airlines or giving very low fines… (so) it’s good news, but it could be better news.”

Hudson was disappointed that only $185,000 was allocated as compensation to the impacted passengers, amounting to less than $200 per flier. He believes a fine of $10 a minute per passenger over the three-hour limit would be more reasonable compensation.

Hudson also pointed out that as large as the fine is, the government allows penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger for airlines that violate the tarmac delay rules, which would amount to a maximum fine of more than $25 million in this case.

He was also concerned that it’s taking the government more than a year to investigate tarmac delay incidents, but called Friday’s announcement a positive development.

“It’s certainly a (step) in the right direction,” Hudson said, adding that it’s too early to tell whether United’s punishment will help prevent similar incidents in the future.

“What’s happening and will probably continue to happen is – unless there are some more attention-getting fines – is that airlines will make the calculation as to whether it’s better to accept a fine of a few hundred thousand dollars or to obey the three-hour rule.”