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Southwest Assessed Largest Civil Penalty For Violating Tarmac Delay Rule

January 16, 2015 - The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that Southwest Airlines violated federal rules involving lengthy tarmac delays last January.

DOT fined Southwest $1.6 million and ordered the airline to cease and desist from further violations. This is the largest civil penalty that the Department has assessed a carrier for violating the DOT’s tarmac delay rules. 

Southwest failed to offer passengers on 16 aircraft delayed at Chicago Midway International Airport (Midway) the opportunity to deplane within three hours of arrival and failed to have sufficient staff available to implement its Tarmac Delay Contingency Plan. 

“Airline passengers have rights, and the Department’s tarmac delay rules are meant to prevent passengers from being stuck on an aircraft on the ground for hours on end,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “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.”

Under the Department’s aviation consumer protection rule finalized in 2009, airlines may not allow tarmac delays longer than three hours on domestic flights at U.S. airports without giving passengers an opportunity to leave the plane.  Exceptions are allowed only for safety, security, and air traffic control-related reasons. 

An investigation by DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office found that on January 2 into January 3, 2014, 16 Southwest flights experienced lengthy tarmac delays at Midway in excess of three hours. Southwest experienced a malfunctioning of its crew scheduling system and an unexpected shortage of staff, particularly the carrier’s ramp-crew, which inhibited the carrier’s ability to clear aircraft from Southwest’s gates in a timely manner to accommodate arriving flights.  A severe winter weather event at Midway contributed to the tarmac delays.



Prior to this order, the largest civil penalties that the Department assessed carriers for violating its tarmac delay rules were $1.1 million in 2012 and $900,000 in 2011.  The Department assessed a larger civil penalty against Southwest because the lengthy tarmac delays involved more flights and impacted more passengers than the tarmac delay events in 2011 or 2012 (neither of which involved Southwest). To date, including this order, the Department has issued 17 orders assessing a total of $5.24 million dollars in civil penalties for violations of its tarmac delay rules.

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