US airline giant American Airlines has been fined $4.1m by the US Department of Transportation (DoT) over violations of federal statutes relating to overlong tarmac delays between 2018 and 2021.

The fine is the largest ever issued for tarmac delay issues, which arise when passengers are kept on planes that have begun to taxi, for more than three hours, without the option to leave the plane. The DoT leverages fines to protect passengers from the uncomfortable experience.

US federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said: “This is the latest action in our continued drive to enforce the rights of airline passengers. Whether the issue is extreme tarmac delays or problems getting refunds, DoT will continue to protect consumers and hold airlines accountable.”

According to the DoT’s consent order, the fine covers 43 delayed flights that affected 5,821 passengers, including one flight on which passengers were not provided with the required food and water. 

The order, which outlined each of American’s violations, stated that the airline disagreed with the action taken over some of the delays, including that caused by a winter storm at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), which the airline said was caused by circumstances outside of its control. 

The airline also highlighted the compensation it had already given to the passengers affected by the delays, leading the DoT to credit $2.05m of existing compensation towards the overall fine paid.

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In response, American Airlines claimed its efforts to reduce delays have contributed to a downward trend since 2019, saying: “American notes that its efforts at continuous improvement with respect to tarmac delays have included better training, procedures, tools, support services and facilities.”

While the majority of flights mentioned in the DoT’s ruling affected America’s Dallas Fort Worth International hub, other incidents occurred at DCA, San Antonio International (SAT) and George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston (IAH). All three airports are located in Texas.

In line with its ambition to protect passengers, the DoT has already issued multiple tarmac delay fines this year, including a $135,000 order against British Airways for a 2017 incident at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS).

Additionally, a $225,000 fine was issued against Eurowings for a 2019 incident at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) when passengers called the police after spending five hours and 36 minutes on the tarmac waiting to fly to Miami International Airport, after a diversion, during a trip from Dusseldorf. 

The DOT fine is the second-biggest regulatory blow to American Airlines this year after a judge ruled that its partnership with JetBlue in New York and Boston, known as the Northeast Alliance, could not continue, siding with the Department of Justice which called it a “de facto merger” of the two airlines’ North East operations.