The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) today fined American Airlines $4.1 million for violating federal statutes and the Department’s rule prohibiting tarmac delays of three hours or more on domestic flights without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane. DOT’s investigation found that American kept dozens of flights stuck on the tarmac for long periods of time without letting passengers off. DOT is ordering American to pay the largest fine ever issued for tarmac delay violations and cease and desist from violating the law. This fine is part of DOT’s unprecedented effort to ensure the traveling public is protected, including returning more than $2.5 billion in refunds to travelers.
“This is the latest action in our continued drive to enforce the rights of airline passengers,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “Whether the issue is extreme tarmac delays or problems getting refunds, DOT will continue to protect consumers and hold airlines accountable.”
An extensive investigation by the Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) found that between 2018 and 2021, American allowed 43 domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for lengthy periods without providing passengers an opportunity to deplane in violation of the Department’s tarmac delay rule. DOT found that none of the exceptions to the tarmac delay rule, including the safety and security exceptions, applied to those flights. In addition, on one of the 43 flights, passengers were not provided with food and water as required. Most of the delays occurred at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. The tarmac delays affected a total of 5,821 passengers.
The $4.1 million fine is the largest civil penalty that the Department has ever assessed for violating the DOT’s tarmac delay rule. Of the $4.1 million assessed, $2.05 million will be credited to the airline for compensation provided to passengers on the affected flights. DOT encourages airlines to compensate passengers by providing these credits so that a portion of the civil penalties that would have been paid to the Federal Treasury is instead used to compensate the affected passengers.
The announcement is just one part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to address and expand rights and protections for air travelers.
Earlier this year, DOT initiated a new rulemaking aimed at requiring airlines to provide compensation and cover expenses for amenities such as meals, hotels, and rebooking when airlines are responsible for stranding passengers. After a two-year DOT push to improve the passenger experience, the 10 largest airlines now guarantee meals and free rebooking on the same airline and nine guarantee hotel accommodations as part of the Department’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard. DOT recently expanded the dashboard at FlightRights.Gov to highlight which airlines currently offer cash compensation, provide travel credits or vouchers, or award frequent flyer miles when they cause flight delays or cancellations. DOT’s planned rulemaking would, if adopted in final, make passenger compensation and amenities mandatory so that travelers are taken care of when airlines cause flight disruptions.
Earlier this year, Secretary Buttigieg also pressed airlines to commit to fee-free family seating and rolled out a new family seating dashboard. The dashboard highlights which airlines guarantee fee-free family seating, and which do not, making it easier for parents to avoid paying junk fees to sit with their children when they fly. Before Secretary Buttigieg’s urging, no airline had committed to guaranteeing fee-free family seating. Now, three airlines have committed to guaranteeing fee-free family seating, and DOT is pursuing a rulemaking that would require all airlines to do so. Secretary Buttigieg also submitted to Congress a legislative proposal to require that airlines provide fee-free family seating.
DOT has also issued a rulemaking on Enhancing Transparency of Airline Ancillary Service Fees. Under the proposed rule, airlines and travel search websites would have to disclose upfront – the first time an airfare is displayed – any fees charged to sit with your child, for changing or cancelling your flight, and for checked or carry-on baggage. The proposal seeks to provide customers the information they need to choose the best deal. Otherwise, surprise fees can add up quickly and overcome what may look at first to be a cheap fare.
DOT has also issued a proposed rulemaking that would codify the Department’s longstanding interpretation that a failure to provide refunds when a carrier cancels or significantly changes a flight to, from, or within the United States is an unfair practice. The longstanding obligation of carriers and ticket agents to provide refunds for flights that carriers cancel or significantly change does not cease when the flight disruptions are outside of the carrier’s control. DOT further proposed to define, for the first time, cancellation and significant change (which includes significant delay) that would entitle a consumer to a refund. The proposal would also require airlines and ticket agents to provide passengers flight credits or vouchers when passengers are unable to fly for certain pandemic related reasons.
DOT’s aviation consumer protection website makes it easy for travelers to understand their rights. The page on tarmac delays can be found here. Consumers may file an airline complaint with the Department here.