Why United’s $1.1 Million Fine for Long Tarmac Delays Prove the Absurdities of the Government’s 3 Hour Rule

The U.S. federal government’s tarmac delay rules prohibit an airline from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers.

Wandering Aramean does a great job explaining the federal government’s recent fine of United for several violations of this rule on one day in July 2012 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

He concludes that United was so deficient that the situation underscores the need for the government to play a role.

Historically I’ve been pretty cynical on the 3-hour rule based on the theory that that airlines should be able to put in place a program and manage it themselves rather than have a government-mandated version. It seems that United failed doubly in this case, both by not drawing up a feasible plan and then by not bothering to try once they realized the plan was failing.

That doesn’t seem right to me.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m no United Airlines apologist. But the story underscores just how silly fining United is for circumstances outside of its control, where it’s likely doing the very best for its passengers under very difficult circumstances.

It was a day of terrible thunderstorms. Lightning and poor visibility limited aircraft movements. In some sense, United was fined for a force majeur event.

The Department of Transportation holds airlines responsible for overcoming such circumstances. They fault United for not implementing their delay mitigation plan, for which Wandering Aramean characterizes United as “admitting” whereas I’d point out not an admission of fault but making the point that even a delay mitigation plan wouldn’t have helped under the circumstances.

That its mitigation plan was insufficient to prevent these flights from sitting on the tarmac points to the extremities of the circumstances, rather than to United’s failures.

United couldn’t park smaller regional jets side by side at a gate, and they couldn’t offload planes, and move those planes elsewhere at the airport. They couldn’t move planes and offload passengers with the ongoing lightning.

Since the delays involved regional jets belonging to their United Express affiliates, and airport rules require the operating carrier’s mechanics to be on hand to move those planes without cockpit crew in place (as though United’s own mechanics are incapable!), United is in some sense being fined for Chicago’s union featherbedding rules.

The government faulted the airline for not diverting planes to other airports. United could have done that and avoided fines, but that would not have been better for its customers. Sending planes to other airports, offloading passengers, re-boarding them, and flying them to a congested Chicago later would have been a far longer and greater inconvenience than what the airline is being fined for. And it would have also been a much greater inconvenience for passengers on later flights whose aircraft would have been at other airports. Here even with the fine United probably made the right decision considering its own costs and the costs to its customers.

Even in the most extreme case, that convinces a skeptic of the rule like Wandering Aramean is, it seems the government is using a very blunt instrument to fine an airline that is doing its best under the circumstances, making the right decisions for its passengers, and hamstrung by weather, airport capacity, and the rules of other government entities.

The DOT report on the incidents does note that United didn’t reach out to other airlines at O’Hare about the possibility of using their gates. It does not, however, suggest that was a likely possibility with those airlines similarly affected by an inability to move planes around the tarmac.

After an event where things go wrong, you can always point to something an actor might have done differently, hypothesizing a counterfactual where things could have gone differently. Ultimately though the problem was an overburdened airport in very bad weather. The greater culpability lies first with whatever being controls the weather, and second with the entity in charge of the capital stock and rules of the airport. But the DOT doesn’t go after them.

At some level the DOT realizes this, as less than half the fine has to be paid out to the federal government. And it could be worse — in Italy they might put the scientists on trial for failing to predict the event.

United successfully deplaned 1156 flights that day without triggering the 3 hour rule. They cancelled 121 flights rather than risk exceeding the three hour rule. On the whole they acted well, with only 13 flights exceeding a 3-hour delay.

Of those 13 flights, four exceeded three hours by less than 10 minutes. Not a single flight exceeded three hours by 90 minutes.

And all of this despite the severe weather coming as a surprise — forecasts had been for only a 30% chance of rain. That hardly seems deserving of fines.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. We all know why these 3-hour rules were put in place. At the same time, while this particular incident was not the intention of the rule, you cannot make an exception for it. Having to make a judgement call of which incident deserves an exception would cause even more controversy. For that reason, 3-hours is 3-hours and there are no exceptions. The rule isn’t perfect, but it gets the point across to the airlines and passengers for the most part are a lot better off. If not for this rule, it would be more than 13 aircraft on the Tarmac for more than 3 hours.

  2. The only way to avoid government regulation in this (and other) type of situation is to prove that you’re capable of caring for the customers yourself. UA failed miserably at that, both by drawing up a plan which likely wouldn’t have worked anyways and then failing to implement it. If they cannot handle the situation – something that the airlines swore they were doing in an effort to stave off regulation – then it is an unfortunate necessity that the feds step in. I don’t like it, but I can at least understand why it might be necessary.

    United had several opportunities to make different decisions which would have mitigated the problem. They could have diverted aircraft rather than accepting new arrivals. Yes, that would have been inconvenient and it may have ultimately cost them more cash directly in comps and repositioning, but the rules have specific metrics. By continuing to accept new arrivals they decided that the rules mattered less and hoped they’d be able to get by. They lost that gamble.

    You’ve stated that the other gates were probably full. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe there were buses or other means available at hard stands the airport has. But United didn’t try, even though they promised they would.

    Yes, the forecast that morning was for less severe weather. But by mid-day it was clear that the early forecast was wrong. There were four different ground stops that day. Each of those (along with many other things) was an opportunity for United to reevaluate their decision and act differently based on currently available data, not the hours-old forecast. That they didn’t drastically shift at that point is unfortunate, both for the affected customers and the company. But to suggest that they had no control over the situation and the delays is myopic at best. To suggest that only screwing 960 customers that much is acceptable when the rules clearly state otherwise is simply ridiculous.

    Once you demonstrate that you’re incapable of actually managing the situation yourself you are stuck with the situation you created. I have absolutely no sympathy for United in this case. They screwed up big time and got caught. Love or hate the rules, it is hard to believe that UA shouldn’t have been called out for this one. After all, they made a mockery of the system by ignoring the plans they had made with the FAA, and also by making such bad plans in the first place.

  3. Ridiculous rule. Should have fined the airport instead because it was the airport which had inadequate facilities.

  4. Can’t wait to see the post after you’re stuck on-board a flight for 4h29m, instead of landing somewhere else, getting off the plane for 3h then flying to ORD or DCA or IAD.

    Especially w/ UA removing entertainment systems and your battery is dead b/c there is no power on-board.

  5. Being stuck on board for hours on end is awful, and I’ve been stuck for more than 4h29m.

    I don’t know why anyone believes “United didn’t even try” or on what basis that claim is made — their plan couldn’t overcome the obstacles, there’s nothing in the evidence to suggest how they reasonably should have done something different based on the knowledge they had at the time.

    What wound up happening was pretty unpleasant for those affected. Sometimes really unfortunate things happen. Other factors are far more culpable here, it’s nice to lash out and want to ‘do something’ but the anger seems misplaced.

  6. “airport rules require the operating carrier’s mechanics to be on hand to move those planes without cockpit crew in place (as though United’s own mechanics are incapable!)”
    I totally agree about stupid union make-work rules. But if passengers are stuck on the plane, why isn’t the cockpit crew there as well????

  7. These rules were put in place to protect passengers. United didn’t follow them and they rightfully got fined. There is no excuse for confining passengers to a plane for 3 hours, let alone for longer.

    Even if you couldn’t move the plane (btw., there is no reason why airplanes can’t get moved during extreme weather), you drive up a jet bridge, put the passengers in buses, and that’s that. Easy. It’s only the airlines’ bottom lines that prevent them from doing this.

  8. Even though I have not read the full details of this particular incident and hence won’t comment on this specific case, I generally believe that the way airlines handle diversions and park planes on the tarmac after loading passengers for hours is wrong and really glad that the govt has atleast some rules in place to curtail their practice. This year alone I have been diverted atleast 4 times and have been stuck inside a plane upto 7 hours inclusive of flying time, initial taxi time, landing taxi time, diversion time etc. which as per schedule should have been a 2.5 hour journey. In none of the cases we were allowed to deplane for even one minute and in one case we even docked at the gate and the door was opened but nobody was allowed to disembark. I realize it may have meant a slightly longer delay but I would any day take an additional delay but atleast be able to stretch out and grab a decent meal etc. than be crammed in a coach seat for 7 hours. In 3 out of those 4 incidents they didn’t even serve water but the did hand out a nutrigrain bar because there is apparently some govt. regulation that requires them to do so and it was clearly called out by the flight attendant on the PA system prior to handing them out. Basically the airline will only do things if they are forced to by law rather than on their own.

  9. While i usually lean toward the libertarian argument, i have to agree with Seth on this one. If left up to the airlines, they would make no attempt to remedy or mitigate the situation, as they have repeatedly proven over the years. No sympathy whatsoever for UA here.

  10. Always the apologist on the 3 hour rule. Pathetic. There is no reason anybody should be held prisoner for 3 hours much less 1. If the t-storms move in it is time to ramp up cancellations and tell your customers to come back tomorrow or at night. Of course the airlines hate to do that because that’s money they have to refund. But 90% of passengers would rather have a refund then sit for hours on a plane going nowhere. Weather is no excuse – in fact it is the whole reason the rule was created! Because airlines can’t be trusted to keep passengers best interest at heart when weather turns bad.

    Kudos to DOT for putting some teeth in the rule. And hopefully your bean counters at UA will realize that crime doesn’t pay. It is cheaper to cancel (and treat your customers right) than to hold your customers prisoner due to your own incompetence.

  11. Once upon a time I was a big United evangelist
    They cared about customers and ran tied the best loyalty program in the world
    They have proved to me that they rarely ever care about customers
    Management has ruined the business culture of the company in the name of excessive greed
    Mileage plus is just barely adequate
    The upside it’s not as bad as Delta or Spirit yet
    Thank god the DOT folks are keeping them on their toes
    Now if you could just find a consumer relations email address on their
    Website easily I might take a flight on them in the future
    They remain on my try to avoid list as an airline
    I so miss the good old days

  12. It is astonishing the length by which you apologize about something that is a natural right against imprisonment. United may have offloaded thousand–millions for what I care–of people on that day, but the reality is that 81% of the flights that got delayed (13/16) were UA, and UA has nowhere lose that share of arrivals/departures. And, of course, UA was accepting arrivals even though there was no place to put them.

    Incidentally the DOT did fine UA only $450k, not the full amount of over $2m that it could (and probably should) have, so your whining about the amount by which the imprisonment limit was exceeded is unwarranted as it was taken into consideration.

    Kudos to the DOT for making it uneconomical for UA to imprison people and for making a mess of things. They certainly have contempt for their passengers, and will continue to do so until the CFO tells them that’s not worth it (because management’s bonuses get affected, of course).

  13. I agree with the 3 hour rule and how it was enforced in this case. The rule only came into being because the airlines had too many issues over time.

    The other point I would like to make was that it appears that only United had an issue that day worth fining. Unless I somehow missed the other fines issued. This makes it even more about United’s decisions that day and not about the weather in general.

    The real issue here is that the customers stranded on those planes are the ones that should be compensated, not the government.

  14. It’s one thing to be trapped on a plane in international FC wearing airline jammys. It’s quite another to be trapped on a CRJ for hours on end.

    I don’t like the fines because they are just passed along to the customers.

    I would prefer that management be forced to sit on a cramped CRJ going nowhere for every second that they force their customers to sit on a plane past the 3-hour limit.

    But either way, government has a proper and very positive role to play in this matter.

  15. How about instead of a blunt 3 hour rule, we simply price passenger time – forcing airlines to align incentives with customers’ own time valuation? At least then we’d be holding debates about a scalar value of per-passenger time value than whether or not 3hrs is the right “tipping point” under a variety of complex situations.

  16. If you’re going to bandy about fancified legal terms like ‘force majeure’ you should also familiarize yourself with basic legal principles, like ‘strict liability’.

  17. Nice post but don’t blow this too hard. That DOT ‘rule’ that you don’t like is was made to give pax some choice, not to hurt the air line. Even during adverse conditions, some pax need to go, while others CAN and will adjust their plans. Holding the ‘adjustables’ hostage for 3+ hours is nuts as many would change plans or even cancel, If Let Off The airplane.
    I remain a big fan of this rule, for the choice it may give me, not because the airline may face a big fine. If they cannot fly within an hour of scheduled time, offer me options including getting off the airplane. Some will, some will not. Let the rule stand – it keeps the airline honest.

  18. sorry, I disagree – there is no good reason to hold people on board for more than 3h and offloading “most” people is not good enough.
    Agree with WA – how about stairs + bus? While I’m not a big fan of busing, it’s better than being stuck on the plane.
    And as “weather” is a regular problem in Chicago, UA should be able to work with the airport on having enough buses/stairs in place for cases like this…
    I have never been stuck for hours on a plane in Europe or Asia. If the gates are full, it’s bus/stairs – I have no tolerance for UA insisting on using their “regular gates”…

  19. @SH – United already compensated the passengers, and the value of that compensation was deducted against the $1.1 million — there was no order for additional compensation.

  20. @Gary Yes, they need a cockpit crew (or appropriate ground crew) to move the aircraft. Presumably a cockpit crew was on board when the aircraft left the gate to become stuck on the tarmac. The cockpit crew may well have left the cockpit leaving the cabin crew and passengers stuck, and I can understand their wanting to leave to go get more information on weather conditions. However, the cockpit crew should still be available to return to the aircraft to move it. If there is no cockpit crew available at all for the aircraft, then surely it is time to deplane the passengers.

  21. Don’t see the issue.

    People shouldn’t be held on planes indefinitely.

    The rule appears to be working, few people held on aircraft over three hours. Good outcome for all.

    UA have access to the courts if they wish to challenge.

    No idea how such a simple and obvious rule can be turned into a debate. The only people who can actually take folks off an aircraft is the airline. This rule mandates that they do so in circumstances most would agree with.

    It is the airlines’ job to figure out how to comply. Sometimes they will find it difficult. Shouting “Mom it’s difficult” makes neither the rule nor fundamental respect for customers go away. This is all as it should be.

    The debate whether this should be government or private sector making the rules is just tiresome. If it’s working, who cares. This isn’t 1776 and the redcoats will not come back. Guaranteed. We’ve had nearly 250 years. It’s seriously time to grow up and move on.

  22. More government bashing. You love to bash the government. So easy to do as can do that whenever anything goes wrong. There are very good reasons for the 3 hour rule. In the past, passengers would sit on tarmac for hours when it was clear to the airline that aircraft was not going out anytime some. 3 hour rule is meant to prevent that, and it has. Try to be more balanced and give the basis that the rule came into being. But then it would leave you with a nonsensical blog rant. Which this article is.

  23. @mike – 3+ hour tarmac delays were rare before the rule, now they are even more rare and flights delay longer by going back to the gate even multiple times to avoid these delays. Better for some worse for others. But in a situation like this, the airline really doesn’t have the most culpability here.

  24. Don’t see why it matters who has the most culpability.

    This rule has very powerfully provided an incentive for all the players to act together to get people off planes in under 3 hours, with the airline being the lead actor.

    You can’t have it both ways. The government providing minimum necessary regulation and also worrying about complex culpability matrices at the same time.

    The airlines can write contracts with airports etc. to handle culpability on commercial terms that the parties agree to. Government doesn’t need to do this and hasn’t.

    This is one of the most perfect pieces of regulation in the world today. Simple. Concise. Direct. Supporting an aim people can understand and agree with.

  25. Contrary to your assertion, I do not believe that government has a role in every aspect of life. It ought to stay the hell out of our bedrooms and reproductive organs, for example.

    But if government exists for anything it’s to guarantee and protect our basic rights. The government has a proper role in regulating air travel safety, for example. Airlines should be required by law to meet minimum safety standards. It’s just too important to leave safety to the free market to keep the airlines from killing us.

    Same thing here: the free market does not always prevent airlines from torturing their customers…sometimes it is more profitable for the airlines to torture a few customers (and potentially lose them for life) than to not torture those customers. So government has an important and proper role in keeping airlines from torturing customers.

    Government is not perfect. Far from it. And examples of government over-reach are ubiquitous. But this is NOT one of them, your knee-jerk reaction against it to the side.

  26. @kokonutz – I’ve known you long enough to know that there are very few areas of economic activity that you don’t see a role for expanding government, but that’s beside the point in this case. United could have avoided fines by diverting aircraft to other airports, but that would have been worse for passengers. United did a great job with almost every flight that day getting passengers off of planes at O’Hare. But with those regional jets operated by affiliates, airport featherbedding labor rules made it very tough to use available double gates or cycle planes. And lightning made it tough to move aircraft or people off of aircraft. Even so, a quarter of the flights in question exceeded the regulatory rule by less than 10 minutes.

    Weather was at fault, the airport’s rules were at fault, and while I tend to see United as an operational mess overall they did a pretty good job that day.

    And a regime that fines them for it is rather backward.

  27. i agree with @wanderingaramean, and i’m a little surprised by this post. first, i doubt we can expect the parade of horribles that you imply – there will be no scientists witch-hunts.

    Also, the regulations are mostly forward-looking, not backward-looking, like most in the US. Next time around, United will weigh the costs of paying the fine against complying. for example, it will make that call to other airlines to find vacancy (100% utilization is uncommon, even in a storm). Or, they may negotiate ahead of time. Had they made some minor adjustments, it could have made a huge difference for the passengers locked in economy.

    The net result is the public will more likely be protected from unreasonable waittimes on the tarmac (which leads to many other issues.) You seem to forget this wasn’t a law made in a vacuum. Sitting on a tarmac for over 3 hours is painful for a handful reasons, all exacerbated by airlines relentless pursuit to cram as many seats in a plane as possible.

    (also strict liability and comparative negligence aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.)

  28. Sorry Gary, to say that it is silly to fine UA for this undermines the reason why this rule was enacted. And to state that it is absurd sounds like something an airline lobbyist would go around saying. Even though your arguments for this case may have merits, the fact that exceptions are made for cases involving safety or security are already fair provisions built into this rule.

    Looking to build a case for loopholes will only encourage airline execs to find ways to absolve themselves from doing the right thing. Fines provide a powerful incentive to comply and unfortunately it’s what management understands best.

  29. @Gary – I heard that now the “flights delay longer by going back tot he gate even multiple times” but have never read anything that substantiates your claim. I agree that the rule is wise and that WA has it right.

  30. @John, I doubt he can substantiate it and seems to be missing the point regardless.

    The point of the regulation is to prevent airlines from optimizing their networks during IRROPS by leaving some passengers on some planes for a very long period of time.

    It is up to the airlines to figure out how to respond to this, by creating their own plans, working with their own suppliers, optimizing their networks without use of 10 hour tarmac holds etc. etc. etc.

    This rule provides the incentive for them to do all of those things, and it doesn’t even sound that hard for the airlines given that UA nearly succeeded this time. All UA have to do now is plan a little better and try a little harder, and the world will be a better place! What’s not to love about this picture?

  31. I am a United fan but in this case I have to side with the Wandering Aramean. United’s behavior was unacceptable and hopefully this fine not only changes future behavior from them but that it inspires other airlines to put in place a plan to deal with negative weather conditions.

  32. Does anyone know how the other dominate carrier at ORD – AA – handled the situation that day? Presumably, if they were not fined, they operated within the parameters of the rules given the same operating conditions. What did they do differently / better?

  33. @CardinalandGoldFan

    I know this is an old thread but I can’t resist one more comment

    There was nothing unexpected about the weather that day. Only the timing was uncertain.

    Airlines can reasonably be expected to have good contingency plans against bad weather, because it happens all the time. ‘Oh, but it was Tuesday, we didn’t expect it on a Tuesday’ would be a pretty sad response.

    I think, unless this was a hurricane Sandy like event (storm of the century, entire neighbourhods destroyed), calling the weather ‘unexpected’ is a bit rich.

Comments are closed.