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The largest civil penalty assessed against a carrier for violating tarmac delay rules was announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) against Southwest Airlines. DOT says Southwest violated federal rules involving lengthy tarmac delays last January.

Southwest failed to offer passengers on 16 aircraft delayed at Chicago Midway International Airport (Midway) the opportunity to deplane within three hours of arrival and failed to have sufficient staff available to implement its Tarmac Delay Contingency Plan, said DOT.

“Airline 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,” said Anthony Foxx, DOT secretary. “We have aggressively enforced, and will continue to aggressively enforce, our tarmac delay rule to ensure carriers have adequate resources to minimize passengers’ exposure to lengthy tarmac delays.”

Under the Department’s aviation consumer protection rule finalized in 2009, airlines may not allow tarmac delays longer than three hours on domestic flights at U.S. airports without giving passengers an opportunity to leave the plane. Exceptions are allowed only for safety, security and air traffic control-related reasons, said DOT.

Prior to this order, the largest civil penalties that the DOT assessed carriers for violating its tarmac delay rules were $1.1 million in 2012 and $900,000 in 2011. The Department assessed a larger civil penalty against Southwest because the lengthy tarmac delays involved more flights and impacted more passengers than the tarmac delay events in 2011 or 2012 (neither of which involved Southwest). To date, including this order, the Department has issued 17 orders assessing a total of $5.24 million dollars in civil penalties for violations of its tarmac delay rules, said DOT.