United Airlines Fined $2.75 Million for Violating Airline Disability, Tarmac Delay Rules

United Airlines Fined $2.75 Million for Violating Airline Disability, Tarmac Delay Rules
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January 8, 2016

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has fined United Airlines $2.75 million for violating the Department's rules protecting air travelers with disabilities and for violating the Department's rule prohibiting long tarmac delays.

United was ordered by the Department to cease and desist from future similar violations.

"It is our duty to ensure that travelers with disabilities have access to the services they need, and that when significant tarmac delays happen, travelers are not left on the plane," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "We will make sure that airlines comply with our rules and treat their passengers fairly."

USDOT investigated United's compliance with its rule implementing the Air Carrier Access Act due to a significant increase in the number of disability-related complaints that United received from consumers in calendar year 2014. A USDOT review of these disability-related complaints revealed that United failed to provide passengers with disabilities prompt and adequate assistance with enplaning and deplaning aircraft and with moving through the terminal at Houston International Airport, Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Denver International Airport, Newark International Airport, and Dulles International Airport.

Additionally, an investigation by USDOT's Aviation Enforcement Office revealed that in numerous instances, United failed to return passengers' wheelchairs, other mobility aids, or other assistive devices in a timely manner or in the condition in which the airline received them.

Of the $2 million fine assessed for these violations, United Airlines will spend $150,000 to improve quality assurance audits of its wheelchair vendor(s), including tracking the time period within which wheelchair assistance is provided to passengers with disabilities, and $500,000 towards a pilot program to develop and implement technology that assists passengers with disabilities in making requests for wheelchair and other disability-related assistance at the airport via United's mobile app. USDOT says that it is also crediting United with $650,000 for compensation it provided to consumers who filed a disability-related complaint with the airline in 2014.

In addition to the above mentioned $2 million penalty, USDOT is fining United an additional $750,000 for five lengthy tarmac delays that took place at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on December 8, 2013 and one lengthy tarmac delay of a flight that was diverted to Houston Hobby Airport on May 20, 2015.

While there were multiple contributing factors to the tarmac delays at O'Hare, including a severe winter weather event, the Aviation Enforcement Office found through its investigation that United's gate mismanagement caused five flights to exceed the Department's three hour limit on the tarmac for domestic flights. In addition, due to a severe thunderstorm, a flight from Denver to Houston Bush Intercontinental diverted to Houston Hobby to refuel; however, the Department found no evidence that United attempted to deplane passengers before the tarmac delay reached the three-hour mark.

Under USDOT rules, all U.S. airlines operating aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats are prohibited from allowing their domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours and their international flights to remain on the tarmac for more than four hours at any U.S. airport without giving passengers the opportunity to leave the plane. Exceptions to the time limits are allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons. The rules also require airlines to provide adequate food and water, ensure that lavatories are working and, if necessary, provide medical attention to passengers during long tarmac delays.

Of the $750,000 assessed for the tarmac delay violations, USDOT says that United will spend $375,000 toward the cost of acquiring and installing an automated visual docking and guidance system that will allow aircraft to be parked in all-weather conditions and during irregular operations without marshallers.