Virgin America, Copa Airlines Hit With Big Fines for Tarmac Delays

by  Maryrose Mullen | Jan 15, 2013
Plane in the sky
Plane in the sky / undefinedundefined/iStock

When it comes to travel, few things are more annoying than having the start of your trip delayed by a long wait for your flight to even takeoff. Many fliers – nails buried in their armrests, eyes fixed on the adjacent terminal – are familiar with the frustration of long tarmac delays. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) feels your pain, and has a number of rules and regulations to put the kibosh on delays. Unfortunately, two airlines skirted the rules, and will have to pay a hefty price.

The DOT fined both Virgin America and Copa Airlines of Panama for violating federal rules prohibiting long tarmac delays. Virgin America was hit with a $55,000 fine, while Copa received a whopping $150,000. Federal regulation dictates that airlines must allow passengers to disembark an aircraft if they have been waiting on a tarmac for more than three hours on domestic flights, or four hours on international flights. Should a flight be delayed at the gate, the airline must announce passengers are permitted to deplane 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time, and every 30 minutes after. Exceptions are made if the delay is due to safety, security, or air traffic control reasons. Depending on the length of the delay, carriers can be fined up to $27,500 per person.

Fines were levied against Virgin America and Copa following major delays with each airline. Virgin America had to pay for a July 18 incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, when the carrier failed to tell passengers they could leave an aircraft delayed at the gate. The plane was held up for two hours and 16 minutes. While losing almost two and a half hours of vacation time is certainly a pain, that delay was nothing compared to the incident with Copa. On June 22, passengers aboard a flight to Panama departing from New York’s JFK Airport were grounded for five hours and 34 minutes. DOT requires airlines to provide food and water to passengers no later than two hours after leaving the gate; travelers were not offered sustenance until more than four hours into the delay. Additionally, Copa failed to report the delay – two indignant riders filed complaints with DOT.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Hood said consumers have “the right to be treated fairly when they fly. Our tarmac rules are meant to prevent passengers from being trapped in an aircraft on the ground for hours on end,” adding the department will continue to work with airlines and airports to ensure, “air travelers are treated with the respect they deserve before, during, and after their flights.”

So the next time you find yourself delayed on the tarmac, moments away from losing your grip on reality and declaring yourself the Emperor of Row 16, Seat B, remember: your time is the airline’s money.

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