Updated 11/14/11 – 4:28 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — If you were among more than 600 American Eagle passengers trapped for hours on the tarmac at O’Hare International Airport last Memorial Day weekend, you’re due compensation.

As WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports, in a clear message to airlines ahead of the busy holiday travel season, the government has imposed a $900,000 fine on American Eagle for the lengthy tarmac delays at O’Hare during thunderstorms this past May 29.

CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg said this is the first time the U.S. Department of Transportation has invoked a rule that took effect last year, limiting tarmac delays to three hours for domestic flights. Airlines that force passengers to stay on their plane after a delay of more than three hours face potential fines.

“Six hundred and thirty thousand dollars has to be paid within 30 days, but the rest of the fine – the other $250,000 – can be in the form of refunds, vouchers, or – I love this – frequent flyer mile awards provided to the passengers for compensation,” Greenberg said.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports

Kate Hanni of California-based FlyersRights.org lobbied to create the Federal Passenger Bill of Rights

“Clearly this sends a message to the airlines. They have to follow the rule,” she told CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole.

The delays on May 29 lasted more than three hours on 15 flights that arrived at O’Hare. A total of 608 passengers were on the flights.

That day, the Chicago Department of Aviation reported nearly 400 flights were canceled at O’Hare and others were delayed up to three hours. The heavy storms also brought flooding to basements and roadways throughout the Chicago area.

The U.S. Department of Transportation implemented a new rule in April 2010 limiting tarmac delays on domestic flights to three hours. After that, airlines must either return to a gate or provide passengers who wish to leave planes with some other means of safely getting off. Airlines that violate the rule can be fined as much as $27,500 per passenger.

The rule has since been extended to international flight delays, which are capped at four hours.

“We put the tarmac rule in place to protect passengers, and we take any violation very seriously,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “We will work to ensure that airlines and airports coordinate their resources and plans to avoid keeping passengers delayed on the tarmac.”

In the 17 months before the passenger bill of rights was enacted, airlines reported 900 significant tarmac delays. In the 17 months after, the number dropped to just 54, meaning the threat of fines appears to be having an impact.

“They really should be pre-cancelling flights before people ever get into a jet, or allow people to rest in the terminal when they know they can’t take off,” Hanni said.

At its website, Flyers’ Rights has suggestions to empower stranded passengers. They include documenting long delays with your camera or computer.

“Get on their PDA and tweet their event, Facebook their event, take those photos and get them up as soon as humanly possible so that the media can grab those photos or video and get the word out about what’s happening,” Hanni said. “Otherwise, it’s almost as if they’re lost in space. You know, they’re just sitting out there and nobody knows.”

American Eagle blamed the delays on May 29 on airport congestion caused by a slow-moving weather system. The airline said it has apologized to passengers and provided either travel vouchers or frequent flyer program mileage credit.

“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,” American Eagle president and chief executive officer Dan Garton said in a statement.

(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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