UPDATED: 10/25/2013 4:12 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — United Airlines was socked with a $1.1 million fine for a single day of flight delays last year at O’Hare International Airport.
The Chicago-based airline was cited for “lengthy tarmac delays” on 13 flights on July 13, 2012, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Transportation. A total of 909 passengers were stuck on those flights for over three hours, DOT said.
It is the largest fine issued since the rule limiting such delays took effect in April, 2010. United was also fined $130,000 in February for delays on a Chicago-Tokyo flight in May, 2012. In that case, passengers were on the plane for nearly five hours.
“It is unacceptable for passengers to be stranded in planes on the tarmac for hours on end,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
“It’s the first time the DOT has come down hard on an airlines,” said CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg. “It could be a message to airlines for the upcoming bad weather season.”
Greenberg, however, pointed out the fine is “a drop in the bucket for United.”
United is being fined for delays that took place on a day when severe thunderstorms and lightning caused several ramp closures and disrupted the movement of aircraft at O’Hare.
The delays exceeded the three-hour limit imposed by the rules. In one case, a flight sat on the tarmac for over four hours.
Federal investigators found that the airline did not implement their contingency plans to deal with the delays.
On two United Express flights, the lavatories were inoperable during part of the delays, according to the DOT release.
In response to the fine, United spokeswoman Mary Ryan said in a statement: “We are committed to complying with the tarmac delay regulations and we continue to improve our procedures while maintaining the safety of our customers and co-workers.”
Under DOT rules, 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 at U.S. airports without giving passengers an 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 provide medical attention to passengers during long tarmac delays.