JetBlue Airways Corp. and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines could face huge U.S. fines after their passengers sat for hours in jets stranded on a snow-covered tarmac near Hartford, Conn., this weekend.
The U.S. Transportation Department is investigating the JetBlue reports and “several other possible delays” but couldn’t comment immediately on American Airlines.
Under rules in place since April 2010, most tarmac delays at U.S. airports are limited to three hours for domestic flights and four hours for international flights, the agency said. Exceptions are allowed only for safety and security, or if air-traffic control advises pilots that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.
If the airlines are charged with breaking the tarmac-delay rule, they face fines of $27,000 for each stranded passenger.
Heavy snow on Saturday disrupted thousands of flights over the weekend and led to 1,261 cancellations, according to FlightAware.com, which monitors air traffic. The storm also knocked out power lines, leaving millions of people without power, and may have been responsible for at least three deaths.
The severe weather also may have caused malfunctions in equipment used to land planes during periods of low visibility at New York City’s John F. Kennedy and Newark, N.J.'s, Liberty airports.
Flights to the area were waved off until the equipment was fixed, with 23 flights diverted to Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Conn., a relatively small airport. That number included six JetBlue flights carrying some 700 passengers and one American Airlines international flight that potentially carried nearly 200 people.
After landing, the planes reportedly sat on the tarmac for up to seven hours as snow piled up around them and the airport struggled with intermittent power outages, according to JetBlue.
Supplies of food and fresh water quickly ran out, and there were reports of bathrooms backing up on at least one plane.
Bradley International said it did everything it could to accommodate the additional 1,000 to 1,500 fliers, but its resources were “stretched to the limit.”
American Airlines said its diverted flight from Paris waited on the tarmac for seven hours before U.S. Customs officers arrived and allowed the passengers to depart.
“We’ve not been contacted yet by DOT, but I am sure we will have the opportunity to explain what happened, just as we always do in such situations,” American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said.
The Transportation Department has not charged or fined any airline for exceeding tarmac-waiting times so far under the latest rules, an agency representative said. There have been some excessive waiting times because of problems with customs, but this would be the first delay because of a power outage.
The Transportation Department declined to comment further on the investigation. No additional details as to what other airlines sustained long tarmac delays this weekend were available.
“Obviously, we would have preferred deplaning much sooner than we did,” JetBlue said in a statement. “We apologize to the customers impacted by this confluence of events, as it remains JetBlue’s responsibly to not simply provide safe and secure travel, but a comfortable experience as well.”
Hinton writes for MarketWatch.com/McClatchy.