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DOT fines Southwest $1.6 million for tarmac delays

Southwest Airlines jets outside the updated Love Field terminal in Dallas, TX Thursday, Sept. 26, 2014. (Star-Telegram/Ron T. Ennis)
Southwest Airlines jets outside the updated Love Field terminal in Dallas, TX Thursday, Sept. 26, 2014. (Star-Telegram/Ron T. Ennis) Star-Telegram

The U.S. Department of Transportation fined Southwest Airlines $1.6 million for lengthy tarmac delays that occurred last January.

The Dallas-based carrier did not allow passengers on 16 different aircraft that were delayed at Chicago’s Midway airport, the chance to get off the plane once they arrived at the airport.

This is the largest tarmac delay fine assessed by the DOT since a rule was implemented in 2010 where airlines could be fined up to $27,500 per passenger on a flight that sits on the tarmac for more than three hours.

“Airline passengers have rights, and the Department’s tarmac delay rules are meant to prevent passengers from being stuck on an aircraft on the ground for hours on end,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement.

The DOT said its investigation found that on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3, 16 Southwest flights had tarmac delays in excess of three hours.

The airline had a malfunction of its crew scheduling system and a shortage of ramp workers which kept aircraft unable to arrive and depart gates on schedule. There was also a severe winter storm on those days that contributed to the delays, the government said.

Southwest said the storm delivered heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures in Chicago and the airport became congested with canceled outbound flights.

“While we are disappointed that the government would seek additional money, after the enormous penalties imposed on Southwest by Mother Nature during the January 2014 winter storms, we nonetheless appreciate the Department of Transportation (DOT) giving Southwest credit for the substantial and costly remedial steps the airline voluntarily took before this consent order was issued,” the company said.

Here is the full statement from Southwest

On the night of January 2, 2014, 16 Southwest flights experienced tarmac delays upon landing at Chicago’s Midway International Airport (MDW) during Winter Storm Hercules. The storm delivered heavy snow fall and subzero temperatures to the Chicago area.

On the evening of the event, we had the goal of safely delivering our customers to Chicago. We met that goal; however, during the time period from 10:15 p.m. to 11:51 p.m., when the 16 affected flights were slated to arrive, the airfield at Midway became congested with aircraft from cancelled outbound flights. While Southwest Employees worked tirelessly to get arriving aircraft to gates as quickly as possible, ultimately, our efforts fell short in the face of challenging operational conditions.

Southwest conducted an extensive internal review of the events. Based upon our findings, we made significant investments in our operation to prevent recurrences, including enhancements to our policies and procedures, staffing and airfield monitoring equipment.

While we are disappointed that the government would seek additional money, after the enormous penalties imposed on Southwest by Mother Nature during the January 2014 winter storms, we nonetheless appreciate the Department of Transportation (DOT) giving Southwest credit for the substantial and costly remedial steps the airline voluntarily took before this consent order was issued.

Prior to this event, Southwest had no tarmac delay fines from the DOT. We are committed to continuously enhancing our operation in an effort to mitigate tarmac delays in the future.

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