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Southwest Airlines hit with record fine for Midway delays

Southwest Airlines has been hit with a record fine as a result of lengthy tarmac delays for 16 flights that took place last January at Midway Airport.

The U.S. Department of Transportation imposed a fine of $1.6 million on Jan. 15 for Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at the Southwest Side airport, after passengers were confined for over three hours on the tarmac.

The fine is the largest civil penalty by the Department of Transportation for violating tarmac delay rules, according to a news release sent out by the agency.

Nearly 2,000 passengers of 16 flights that arrived at Midway between 10:15 p.m. and 11:01 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2014 were affected. The delays, according to Southwest Airline officials, were caused by the major snowstorm that hit the Chicago area on New Year’s Eve and continued through Jan. 2.{{more}}

Southwest Airlines officials referred to it as the ÒWinter Storm Hercules.” The Southwest consent order said that over a foot of snow fell on the Chicago area from New Year’s Eve up until Jan. 2.

Regardless of that explanation, the agency felt more should have been done for the passengers.

ÒAirline passengers have rights, and the department’s tarmac delay rules are meant to prevent passengers from being stuck on an aircraft on the ground for hours on end,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

Flights were landing just as Southwest was experiencing a shift change. Southwest officials said the small crew of workers that remained made it nearly impossible to clear and prepare gates for the arriving flights without delays.

Southwest agreed to the fine as part of a settlement in which it received credit for $700,000 as part of improvements made after last year’s winter storm.

ÒWhile 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,” the airline said in a statement. ÒWhile 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 giving Southwest credit for the substantial and costly remedial steps the airline voluntarily took before this consent order was issued.”

The $1.6 million penalty includes a $600,000 payment to the government and $269,000 in compensation to passengers, according to the seven-page consent decree between the department and airline.

But the agreement also credited $431,000 to Southwest for acquiring and operating better equipment to monitor aircraft position at Midway, and merely threatened an additional $300,000 fine if Southwest violates the tarmac rule again within a year.

The affected passengers were on inbound flights that hit Midway’s airfield while they were Òcongested with aircraft from canceled outbound flights,” according to a statement from Southwest.

The Department of Transportation found Southwest violated agency rules banning airlines from holding domestic flights on a tarmac for more than three hours without giving passengers a chance to exit the planes.

The only exceptions, according to the Department of Transportation, is for reasons of safety or air traffic controller problems.

The department has issued a total of $5.24 million in fines under 17 orders. The largest previous fines for tarmac delays were for $1.1 in 2012 and $900,000 in 2011.

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