DOT Fines United For Reporting Tarmac Delays, Earns the Cranky Jackass Award

There redjackasshave been plenty of questionable decisions coming from the Department of Transportation lately, but none more insane than the decision to fine United for accidentally reporting tarmac delays. That’s right. United was overly cautious and now owes at least $6,000 (and another $6,000 if they do it again). I am now asking the DOT for proof that a monkey isn’t running that organization, because I can’t imagine a human making such an absurd ruling.

When I first heard this, I thought it was a joke. But no, it’s not. In May, the first month when the tarmac delay rule was in force, United reported four flights that had exceeded the three hour ground time permitted. They were included in the DOT monthly report but later retracted. See, United made a mistake and was overly cautious, so in exchange, the airline has been slapped with a fine.

That means the DOT gets the dubious honor of earning only the second fire-red-with-anger Cranky Jackass award. You guys suck.

Here’s an explanation from the four page ruling:

In its certified May 2010 BTS Form 234 filing, United reported that four flights were “away from gate” in excess of three hours, including one for four hours and forty-one
minutes. . . . Based on the information reported by United, the Enforcement Office was led to believe that the flights experienced tarmac delays of three hours or more, and, accordingly, initiated an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the delays. In response to the Enforcement Office’s investigation, United examined its data and found that on all four flights, passengers were offered an opportunity to deplane, meaning the doors were open and the brakes were set, before the delays reached three hours in duration. United,
therefore, failed to submit accurate data . . . . United’s misreporting of this data wasted valuable Department resources, since only after the Enforcement Office initiated its investigation did it learn that United improperly filed the data.

So in the very first month the misguided rule applied, United accidentally over-reported. And because the DOT felt it necessary to investigate and found that United was mistaken, the airline will be punished. For its part, United had this bland statement.

It is unfortunate that our effort to be fully transparent with the DOT resulted in our inadvertently reporting four flight delays where we complied with regulations and with our own procedures to ensure the comfort and safety of our customers and employees.

I believe what United actually meant to say was – “Are you f*&(ing crazy, you insane sons of b*&ches?”

Could this agency be sending more mixed signals to airlines?

Think about this. It was deemed incredibly important that by May, airlines had to report their long delays. United had four flights that diverted to Colorado Springs and the airline, which operates thousands of flights every day, reported what it thought was valid because it didn’t want to cross the DOT. Now, the DOT explains that not only do airlines need to report these delays promptly, but if they happen to make a mistake, they’ll be punished for that too. So the incentive is there for the airlines to be more cautious and NOT report? What is the DOT thinking?

This also sends a warning shot across the bow saying that the DOT isn’t messing around here. Though no clarification has been released on how the DOT expects to fine airlines for tarmac delays (and no fine has been announced yet), airlines can only assume it will be the maximum penalty. Time to get even more conservative with scheduling.

This is really one of the many reasons that the DOT has earned the fire-red-with-anger Cranky Jackass award. Words just cannot express how dysfunctional this agency is these days. I can’t remember it being any worse.

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21 Comments on "DOT Fines United For Reporting Tarmac Delays, Earns the Cranky Jackass Award"

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Troy
Guest
I’m actually going to side with the DOT on this one. United reported incorrect data. Fines like this happen in the financial industry all the time, including fines for when the reports go in late. For this rule, the ability to generate accurate reports is king. Personally, I’m actually quite concerned that United can’t correctly track the times of their flights. I’m now questioning every time United has claimed great “on-time performance”. In my mind, the DOT is saying, “guys, get your **** together – cuz we’re not kidding” (similar to your comment about a warning shot).
JamesK
Guest
I disagree with the comparison with the financial industry. Airlines are corporations after all and do have armies of accountants and lawyers for SEC filings. This has nothing to do with FLIGHT times, which United does track carefully, but with an arbitrary OPPORTUNITY TO DEPLANE time. The four major times that airlines track, and that the ACARS equipment onboard modern aircraft are designed to automatically relay, are OUT, OFF, ON and IN to the airline’s dispatch office and to ATC. One of the big problems with this rule is that many–if not most–aircraft are programmed to transmit an OUT time… Read more »
Troy
Guest
Very interesting points, JamesK – certainly learn something new every day. One question, though – don’t the airlines already have to carefully track door open & door closed? My understanding is that this data is needed to manage flight attendant hours, as their clock doesn’t “start” until the door closes (this according to a friend of mine who was an FA w/ NWA since they were Northwest Orient), as well as “crew rest / flight time”. Certainly realise this is new reporting, though I also realise they have armies of IT staff, some of which are dedicated to data warehousing,… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member
I’d gander that given how lean airlines run they’ven’t had a huge amount of resources to throw at this. What would’ve been a reasonable approach would have been for the DOT to say its a $10,000 suspended fine, which will be waived as long as there are no further recurrences for the next six months. Given large scale operations you expect to get 90+% of the reporting correct the first time, and I’m sure there are some errors that take more looking into to get right the second time around. The financial industry is a really bad comparison here. If… Read more »
Alex Hill
Member

This is a $6000 fine, which is less than UA’s revenue on that flight alone. Hardly a serious fine — I wouldn’t even call it a slap on the wrist. The reality is that United did report incorrect data which did lead to some cost to the DOT in staff time to investigate it. The DOT effectively said “yes, we noticed; try to be more careful next time”.

Nick Barnard
Member

Airline revenues per flight have barely any relation to airline profits per flight. If anything on these flights the airline lost a bunch of money, as irregular operations are expensive.

Jason H
Guest
Troy and Alex.. you can’t be serious? To try to compare this to SEC reporting is ridiculous. United made a mistake in the FIRST month of this reporting and when they realized it they reported as such. DOT should have used this as a PR move to say how well their stupid scheme worked and UA could have used it to say how well they take care of passengers. Now look, DOT looks like it is run by a bunch of office monkeys (http://www.thinkgeek.com/geektoys/cubegoodies/a1a2/). Now explain where the incentive is for any airline to be proactive in reporting potential tarmac… Read more »
david
Member

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t :)

David

David SF eastbay
Member

If it was the first month, you would think they would just give a warning since anyone can make a mistake when something new starts/used. It’s not like the government does everything right the first time, or second, or third, or……..

Gclark
Member

I believe United intentionally mis-reported just to create a ruckus over the rule. United (and the rest if the airlines) don’t like having to schedule their flights, provide the transportation they are promising, or having anyone look over their shoulder. It was a no-lose proposition for United. Either nothing would happen or there would be a ruckus and people would “feel sorry for poor United being picked on”. You have been duped, Mr. Cranky, siding with United. The only problem here is that the fine was not large enough.

david
Member

Greg, you really think people at United just sit in a room somewhere thinking about how to make people feel sorry for them? Other than us airline nerds, not too many people are going to care about this story.

I think they are busy enough trying to run the airline successfully and don’t have time to play games with seeing how they can get a few bloggers to write about their incident with the DOT.

David

montero747
Guest

Whatever!

wjboll
Member

It could be worse. The DOT could be run by the Department of Homeland Security

tharanga
Guest

$6000 is nothing. It’s not a punitive measure, but a nominal fee to cover the DOT’s wasted costs in the matter. Seems OK to me.

montero747
Guest
It’s not OK. This is the US government punishing an airline for reporting information that it felt was fair to report. Where are our checks when the government causes us wasted time and energy? I couldn’t see in a million years how this is acceptable. A letter to UAL stating the DOTs concerns would have been sufficient. A fine is ridiculous. It’s a far reaching grab of power that left unchecked will spill further into the industry. This could be the first salvo of fines that will propagate through an already fragile industry. Unacceptable behavior.
jaybru
Member
Cranky, Luv ya, but I disagree with you. I now suspect you were the “actual” author of the “guest post by an anonymous airline insider” in your BNET Sept. 9 story: “Better Flight Status Information Isn’t Worth the Expense.” Whoever, admitted to be involved with an ORD UA Express contractor, saying the flight status data “…isn’t terribly accurate,” and “…flat out lousy.” What I got out of the article was: Customers, you’re not worth our efforts! Now, I have to admit, the DOT order as published (Order 2010-9-22) is so short, it doesn’t give me much to go on. You… Read more »
gumpfs
Guest
At United, the out time is generated when the parking brake is released after all the passenger entry doors (e.g. not cargo doors) have been closed. The flight attendants don’t report when the door is closed, although this information is readily seen in the cockpit (although not recorded). For purposes of complying with the rule, I suspect that the out time is close enough to the door being closed for compliance. The In time is recorded as the last time the parking brake was set prior to an entry door being opened. In other words, if you set the brakes… Read more »
christiandulin
Member

“United’s misreporting of this data wasted valuable Department resources”

REALLY?! The DOT is fining airlines for wasting their time…really??
The absurdity of this is beyond belief.
Having passed this delay rule, they have created the need to conduct investigations. Now they’re cranky about having to conduct them. So they fine the airlines that don’t make it easy for them.
Like montero747 said… “Unacceptable!”

And for those saying that $6,000 is miniscule, I don’t think you understand the economics of the industry.

christiandulin
Member

“United’s misreporting of this data wasted valuable Department resources”

REALLY?! The DOT is fining airlines for wasting their time…really??
The absurdity of this is beyond belief.
Having passed this delay rule, they have created the need to conduct investigations. Now they’re cranky about having to conduct them. So they fine the airlines that don’t make it easy for them.
Like montero747 said… “Unacceptable!”

Frank V
Guest

The question is: how much is the fine for failing to report an incident? If it is $100,000 and the fine for incorrectly reporting is $6,000 then the best stategy is “when in doubt, report”.

Don’t expect DoT to e ratinoal — they are a governmental agency.

Also keep in mind, that in the last decade or so, United has never, ever admitted that it made a mistake: it is always the other guy.

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