Southwest Airlines is being fined $1.6 million for not letting passengers get off planes that were stuck on the ground during long delays.
It's a record fine for violating federal rules against long tarmac delays.
The Department of Transportation said Thursday that the fine covered 16 planes that were stuck on the ground for at least three hours after landing at Chicago's Midway Airport. Passengers on two of the planes were stranded for more than four hours.
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The government said that during a winter storm on Jan. 2, 2014, Southwest didn't have enough employees to handle baggage, remove snow, de-ice planes and move the planes to and from gates.
In a consent order, Southwest argued that it couldn't safely allow passengers off the planes.
The civil penalty against Southwest topped a $1.1 million fine imposed against United Airlines in 2013 for more than a dozen long delays at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The government said it sought a bigger penalty against Southwest because the delays involved more planes and passengers.
Federal rules require airlines to let passengers leave the plane if a domestic flight is stuck on the ground for more than three hours or an international flight is stuck more than four hours. In 17 cases, the government has fined airlines a total of $5.2 million.
Southwest shares fell 54 cents to close at $38.90 on Thursday.
In response to the fine, Southwest Airlines issued the following statement:
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.