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American Eagle is fined $900,000 for stranding fliers on tarmac

The fine is the first under a federal rule against leaving people in aircraft delayed on the ground for long periods. About 600 American Eagle passengers on six flights were stranded in Chicago for more than three hours May 29.

November 15, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • American Eagle Airlines agreed to pay up to $250,000 of its penalty through refunds, vouchers and frequent flier miles to the passengers on flights that were delayed May 29. Above, the American Eagle baggage area at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
American Eagle Airlines agreed to pay up to $250,000 of its penalty through… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )

The federal government has levied a $900,000 fine against American Eagle Airlines, a regional carrier for American Airlines, for stranding more than 600 passengers at least three hours on more than a dozen flights in May.

It was the first penalty levied under a rule adopted by the U.S. Transportation Department in April 2010 against airlines that strand passengers in aircraft delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours for domestic flights or four hours for international flights.

The maximum fine is $27,500 per passenger, but airlines can avoid the penalty by providing passengers food and water and the option to return to the terminal before the time limit expires.

An Orange County passenger stuck on one of the delayed planes in Chicago for 3 1/2 hours said that the delay was frustrating. After two hours on the tarmac, the flight attendants ran out of food and announced that the toilets in the plane were out of commission, he said.

"I called American Airlines later to get some kind of compensation, but after a while I gave up," said Rossmoor resident Charles Feistman, who said he was trapped in Chicago while returning home after attending his son's wedding in Virginia. "I've received nothing."

American Eagle Chief Executive Dan Garton said he regrets the inconvenience caused by the delay.

"We take our responsibility to comply with all of the department's requirements very seriously and have already put in place processes to avoid such an occurrence in the future," he said in a statement.

Kate Hanni, who has been lobbying lawmakers for such penalties since she was trapped on a delayed plane for more than nine hours in 2006, called the fines "very, very timely and smart."

She said she believes a meeting she and her advocacy group, FlyerRights.org, had with the Transportation Department's enforcement division might have prompted the fine.

"I was starting to think that they would never impose any fines," she said.

Brandon M. Macsata, executive director of another passenger group, the Assn. for Airline Passenger Rights, called the fine "a small victory for airline passengers in their ongoing fight to force the airline industry to treat its customers humanely."

The fine against American Eagle stems from lengthy delays at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 29. A total of 15 planes, carrying 608 passengers, were stuck on the tarmac for three hours or more.

Because of heavy fog and thunderstorms early that morning, air traffic controllers canceled departures for several hours. However, an investigation by the Transportation Department found that American Eagle continued to land several planes later that day, creating a backlog of flights.

In many cases, American Eagle didn't have enough pilots and crew members to fly planes that were loaded with passengers and waiting at the gates, according to Transportation Department records.

"We put the tarmac rule in place to protect passengers, and we take any violation very seriously," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

The tarmac-delay rule was spurred by several notorious cases of flight delays, including one in which passengers were stranded for nearly six hours on a plane in Rochester, Minn., in 2009. The rule includes several exemptions for safety, security or air-traffic-control-related reasons.

The Transportation Department is now investigating several flights operated by American Airlines and JetBlue Airways that were delayed for hours because of snowstorms last month at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Conn.

Under the consent order, American Eagle agreed to pay $650,000 to the agency within 30 days and up to $250,000 through refunds, vouchers and frequent flier miles to the passengers on the delayed flights.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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