American Eagle fine may send flight cancellations soaring

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WASHINGTON — The government’s $900,000 fine Monday against an American Airlines affiliate for holding hundreds of passengers on an airport tarmac might serve as a deterrent to future such incidents. But industry analysts warned that might mean more canceled flights.

Even before the fine against American Eagle Airlines, airlines had canceled more flights to avoid pushing up against the three-hour limit on tarmac delays the Department of Transportation imposed last year. Now, cancellations will shoot up even more, analyst Michael Boyd said.

“If there’s a 20 percent chance of this happening, an airline will cancel,” Boyd said, because of the potential for massive fines.

Airlines that violate the rule can be fined as much as $27,500 per passenger, but transportation officials had held off fining air carriers in any of the several dozen instances where the rule has been broken until this week.

The fine imposed on American Eagle was the largest penalty to be paid by an airline in a consumer protection case not involving civil rights violations, although airlines have paid much higher fines for violating federal safety regulations.

The transportation department “understands that many of these instances are outside of an airline’s control,” said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents major carriers.

Officials apparently felt American Eagle’s case was particularly egregious.

American Eagle kept planes on the tarmac for more than three hours on 15 flights arriving at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on May 29, according to a settlement agreement between the department and the airline. A total of 608 passengers were aboard the delayed flights.

Poor weather that day prevented scheduled flights from departing O’Hare, but American Eagle continued to send planes from other airports into O’Hare even though airline officials knew there were no gates.

The airline must pay $650,000 of the fine within 30 days, the department said. But up to $250,000 can be credited for refunds, vouchers, and frequent flier mile awards provided to the passengers on the 15 flights, and to passengers on future flights that violate the three-hour rule, the department said.

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