3 June flights sat on the tarmac for more than 3 hours; no increase in canceled flights

By Samantha Bomkamp, AP
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

3 United flights had long tarmac delays in June

NEW YORK — Only three flights sat on the tarmac for more than three hours in June compared with nearly 300 a year ago, the government said Tuesday. But airlines didn’t cancel more flights to avoid potentially massive fines for those long delays.

All the flights that exceeded the limit were operated by United Airlines, and each topped the three-hour time by five minutes or less. All were flying out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport on the same day — June 18 — when thunderstorms and strong winds battered the area. United later canceled two of the three flights that were held up.

United said in a statement that the weather prevented employees from safely loading and unloading aircraft at a few points during the day. The airline said it gave passengers on the flights food, drinks and regular updates. It also provided compensation to customers on the canceled flights. All those steps are required by the DOT. United is the predominant carrier at O’Hare, handling about 31 percent of flights, not counting regional service.

There was no limit to time on the tarmac in June 2009, when 268 flights were delayed for more than three hours. June is one of the busiest months for air travel. It’s also one of the stormiest months of the year.

Airlines canceled 1.5 percent of their scheduled domestic flights in June, the same as a year ago and just slightly higher than the 1.2 percent rate in May.

There were five flights that were delayed past the three hour mark in May, the first month fines were in effect. Four of those were United flights.

All were delayed on the same day, at the same airport, because of bad weather. The fifth flight stuck for more than three hours was operated by Delta, which also blamed bad weather.

The Transportation Department hasn’t yet decided whether to fine the offending airlines, or what the fine might be, spokesman Bill Mosely said. The maximum fine under the rule is $27,500 per passenger, which could add up $5 million or more for a fully packed airplane, but the department rarely imposes maximum fines.

The Transportation Department reported the June statistics Tuesday as part of its monthly on-time report. Hawaiian Airlines again operated the most flights on time, followed by Alaska Airlines and US Airways. Comair, a regional carrier for Delta, was last in the rankings.

U.S. airlines overall did a better job of getting passengers to their destinations on time than a year ago, but the rate declined from May. Airlines had an overall on-time rate in June of 76.4 percent, compared with 76.1 percent in the same month last year. The rate was 79.9 percent in May.

The DOT also reported that complaints soared in June from a year and a month earlier. While that may mean more passengers are unhappy, the DOT has also made it easier to complain this year by launching a website for consumers to gripe via e-mail.

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