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Order 2016-1-2 - United Airlines - Consent Order - Tarmac Delay Rule
Issued and Served January 7, 2016
This consent order concerns violations by United Airlines, Inc., of 14 CFR Part 259, the Department’s tarmac delay rule; 49 USC § 42301, which requires adherence to a carrier’s emergency contingency plan; and 49 USC § 41712, which prohibits unfair and deceptive practices. Specifically, the carrier violated the Department’s tarmac delay rule by failing to adhere to the assurances in its contingency plan for lengthy tarmac delays that the carrier would not allow an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours for domestic flights and four hours for international flights before providing passengers an opportunity to deplane. This order directs United to cease and desist from future similar violations of 14 CFR Part 259 and 49 USC §§ 42301 and 41712 and assesses the carrier $750,000 in civil penalties.
In a report filed to the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings on January 7, 2014, United indicated that multiple United and United Express flights experienced tarmac delays in excess of three hours at ORD on December 8, 2013. The Enforcement Office conducted an investigation into the flights and determined that five United flights violated the Department’s tarmac delay rule and warrant enforcement action. United was responsive throughout the Department’s investigations and promptly provided the Department with requested information. With the exception of its failure to adhere to assurances that it would not allow passengers to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours for domestic flights or four hours for international flights, United fulfilled all of the other assurances outlined in its Tarmac Delay Contingency Plan.
Through the investigation, the Enforcement Office learned that there were multiple contributing factors to the tarmac delays at ORD, including a severe winter weather event at ORD. Although the weather forecast for December 8, 2013, predicted inclement weather at ORD in the afternoon, the event exceeded predictions with snow falling at the rate of one inch per hour between 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM, which is United’s busiest time at ORD. Additionally, the ground temperatures were lower than predicted. This combination caused ice to accumulate on aircraft, which then required de-icing. Additionally, this event was the first severe weather event after a new arrival runway opened at ORD in October 2013. Therefore, arrival traffic at the airport exceeded departure traffic causing long taxi-times for aircraft waiting to depart, requiring those aircraft to de-ice multiple times. Since all aircraft de-ice at ORD’s gates, congestion in the gate area increased between the flights waiting to depart that had to de-ice, flights that returned to the gate that had to de-ice again, and flights that arrived and were waiting for a gate.5 Moreover, due to the rapidly accumulating snowfall, at intermittent periods throughout the evening, the Chicago Department of Aviation closed taxiways and runways.
While the above conditions contributed to these delays, the Enforcement Office found that for the five flights at issue in this order, United’s gate mismanagement caused the flights to exceed the three hour limit. Although the challenging weather and taxi instructions made remote deplaning unsafe, given United’s knowledge of the operational situation on the ground and the provisions of its contingency plan, pursuant to its Tarmac Delay Contingency Plan, United should have explored alternate deplaning options earlier or assigned gates earlier. For some flights, United continued to change the flight’s gate assignment or did not assign a gate until after the three hour mark, which delayed FAA ATC taxi instructions. United’s contingency plan recognizes that even during normal operations at ORD, aircraft may experience long taxi times to the ramp area. Moreover, FAA ATC at ORD will not give taxi instructions to aircraft that have not yet been assigned a gate at ORD. For the flights listed below, the Enforcement Office determined that United’s actions led to the excessive delay.
In addition to the tarmac delay event that occurred at ORD in December 2013, this order also covers a tarmac delay experienced by United flight 756 in May 2015. Flight 756 departed from Denver International Airport bound for Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport on May 20, 2015, and was unable to land at IAH due to severe thunderstorm activity. As a result, flight 756 diverted to Houston Hobby Airport to refuel and experienced a three hour 14 minute tarmac delay while on the ground. There is no clear evidence that United attempted to deplane passengers before the tarmac delay reached the three-hour mark. As such, the Enforcement Office determined that flight 756 also violated the Department’s tarmac delay rule and enforcement action is warranted with respect to this flight.
By: Blane Workie