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.


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

  1. Troy says:

    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 says:

      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 when the parking brake is released and the aircraft starts to move, *not* when the door is closed. As a result, pilots have to make a mental note of when the flight attendant reports the door closed in order to remain in compliance with this new rule. Reprogramming the ACARS to transmit an OUT time when the door is closed is an option, but it has ATC implications since the airline now has no idea whether the plane has pushed back or is still parked at the gate. IN times have the same problems, which is where United got into trouble here.

      The DOT asked the airlines to self-report or face stiff penalties. United had a grey-area case and decided to play it conservatively and self-report, and let the government decide whether or not United violated the government’s rule. United now gets dinged. If there’s any comparison to financials, it’s like failing to take a deduction on your 1040 you could have legitimately taken, instead paying more in taxes, then getting an IRS audit.

      As far as the accuracy of the DOT numbers go, we can have a loooong conversation about how meaningless the baggage claim and denied boarding numbers are, especially with the regionals.

      • Troy says:

        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, enterprise dashboards, and business reporting (making an assumption here – no personal knowledge on UA’s IT). And yes, I’m sure we could make some comments about UA’s website…

    • 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 this were the financial industry the DOT and United would submit to a settlement for $1,000 in a court, and the judge would throw a fit because it wasn’t enough. The financial industry works exceedingly close with their regulators and I’d argue it isn’t an arms length relationship as it should be..

  2. Alex Hill says:

    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”.

    • 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.

  3. Jason H says:

    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 delays? Next story will be DOT fining an airline for delaying a report by 24 hours while the airline makes sure they don’t accidentally report something that didn’t really happen.

  4. 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……..

  5. Greg says:

    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 says:

      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

  6. Bill says:

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

  7. tharanga says:

    $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.

  8. montero747 says:

    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.

  9. JayB says:

    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 seem to have a take, and I don’t doubt your facts.

    But, if I were at DOT, I’d fine UA day-after-day-after-day until they stopped their uniformative, non-sensical, flight status information. I siite their web site “flight status” nonsense UA has been serving up for years. (I know, you said you don’t pay any attention to that data, relying on “FlightStats,” I believe. I fnd that data far too micro, offering a traveler little useful data.)

    Today, 3:10pm EDT, 9-23-10, UA shows the following:

    UA 217 IAD-SFO, Departure: Sched.: 1220p Actual: 1225p, Reason: “Due to Aircraft Servicing”; Arrival: Sched.: 310p, Estimated: 307p, Reason: “Due to Aircraft Servicing.” Do I believe any of the info? No! Reasons? If this is true, why any reasons?

    UA 219 IAD-SFO, Hadn’t left yet, but estimated at almost 2 hrs. late departing and arriving; Reason: Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing!

    Wow! Great Info, UA! You deserve all the fines you get, and more!

    …returning back to my normally mild-mannered self!

  10. gumpfs says:

    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 and wait 10 minutes for a jetway operator, the In time will still be the time you set the brakes. If you release the brakes and move forward 5 feet without opening an entry door, that time will be the In time once a door is opened. Again, cargo doors do not count.

    For cases where the door closed/opened is significantly different than the Out/In times, the flight attendants can manually submit “holding” time to receive extra pay/reflect the correct duty time. This is not recorded automatically.

    In the COS diversions, because a door was opened with the parking brake set, the In times would have been accurately recorded.

  11. dulin says:

    “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.

  12. dulin says:

    “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!”

  13. Frank V says:

    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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