Southwest Airlines hit with record $1.6M fine for Midway tarmac delays

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   Federal officials Thursday fined Southwest Airlines $1.6 million for improperly trapping passengers of 16 flights on the tarmac at Midway Airport for more than three hours last January.

The fine is the largest civil penalty ever imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation for violating tarmac-delay rules, the agency said in a news release.

  Southwest agreed to the fine as part of a settlement in which it received credit for $700,000 in actions it took following the Jan. 2 and Jan. 3, 2014, tarmac delays of, on average, more than 3 ½ hours, a consent order indicated Thursday.

Affected were 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, during what Southwest called “Winter Storm Hercules.”

The storm dumped more than a foot of snow on Chicago between New Year’s Eve and Jan. 2 of 2014, the consent order said.

Plus, the flights landed just as Southwest was experiencing a shift change and “the small ramp crew that remained made it impossible for Southwest to clear and prepare gates for the arriving flights in a timely manner,” according to the consent order.

Two flights — from Phoenix and Salt Lake City —  were especially hard hit; they sat on the tarmac for more than four hours, the consent order indicated.

In a statement Thursday, Southwest said the airline “had the goal of safely delivering our customers to Chicago” and “we met that goal.”

Affected passengers were on inbound flights that hit Midway’s airfield just as it was “congested with aircraft from canceled outbound flights,” said Southwest, Midway’s largest carrier.

“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,’’ the airline said Thursday.

The Department of Transportation found that Southwest had violated agency rules banning airlines from holding domestic flights on a tarmac for more than three hours without giving passengers an opportunity to exit their planes. Exceptions are allowed only for safety, security and air traffic control-related reasons.

Southwest noted that its cabin crews provided trapped passengers with food, water, announcements and functional lavatories, and that it had never before been hit with a tarmac-delay fine.

Southwest “proactively” gave affected passengers a “message of apology” on Jan. 3, as well as vouchers for future travel, the consent order said.

As part of the settlement, Southwest was credited for $269,000 in compensation it provided passengers, as well as $431,000 for a new software system that allows it to better monitor tarmac times and other functions.

“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 giving Southwest credit for the substantial and costly remedial steps the airline voluntarily took before this consent order was issued,’’ Southwest said in its Thursday statement.

Storm Hercules marked the beginning of a brutal January 2014, which included Jan. 6 and 7 temperatures that were so bone-numbing the period was dubbed “Chiberia.”

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