Exhausted traveler Johnny Sigmon, center, waits in line at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport after his American Airlines flight to Las Vegas is canceled.
Passengers may soon be seeing more cancellations on airport departure boards.
Continental's CEO told investors Tuesday that the airline will opt to cancel flights rather than chance being fined.
Aviation consultant Denny Kelly expects other airlines to follow suit.
“I think all of them will cancel flights,” he said. “They'll do it partially because they think they are going to punish passengers, and if they punish them, someone will get this legislation removed.”
Under new federal guidelines that take effect next month, airlines can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger if a plane is stuck on the tarmac for longer than three hours.
“How can they say there is nothing wrong with having someone sit on a seat and run out of water and everything and sit on there for three, four, five hours? That's ridiculous,” Kelly said.
With the new fines, a delayed MD-80 could cost American Airlines close to $4 million, and a fine for a full 757 could cost more than $5 million.
“It's unavoidable that more flights will be canceled to avoid fines,” said American Airlines spokesman Steve Schlachter. “It's one of the unintended consequences of a bill that has no flexibility.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Transportation Department said airlines can avoid fines by doing a better job of scheduling flights and crews.
"Carriers have it within their power to schedule their flights more realistically, to have spare aircraft and crews available to avoid cancellations" and to rebook passengers when there are cancellations, said Bill Mosley, a department spokesman.
Frequent flier Dave Wooldridge said he plans to punish airlines that cancel flights by taking his business elsewhere.
“I won't fly that airline again,” he said. “They risk losing a lot of people if that's what they become known for, canceling flights.”
Traveler Andrea Ramirez also didn't agree with the airlines' tactic.
“I would definitely rather be late than not go at all,” Ramirez said. “That's for sure.”
The fines are scheduled to take effect April 29.