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United’s Tarmac Delays in Chicago Storms Probed by U.S.

United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL), the world’s largest airline, is under U.S. investigation for stranding 16 flights on tarmacs for more than three hours during thunderstorms.

Severe storms hit Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on July 13, shutting the ramp into United’s gates and creating lengthy delays there and in other locations, according to an e- mail statement yesterday from the Chicago-based airline.

Two United mainline flights and 14 operated by affiliated regional carriers were stuck on the ground for longer than the U.S. Transportation Department allows under a 2010 rule, according to a report yesterday by the agency, which said it’s investigating. AMR Corp. (AAMRQ)’s American Airlines, which also has a hub at O’Hare, didn’t have any stranded flights reported for that day.

“We recognize our performance in July was not what our customers expect, and it was not what we want to deliver,” Mary Ryan, a United spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

The carrier’s flights arrived within 15 minutes of schedule 64 percent of the time in July, the worst of 15 reporting airlines, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. It was the third consecutive month United had the worst on-time performance among U.S. carriers.

Computer Malfunctions

United has been plagued by computer and operations malfunctions since making a transition earlier this year to passenger-service and aircraft preventive-maintenance systems that Continental Airlines used before the two carriers merged in 2010.

In August, a network failure affecting airport systems and the airline’s website delayed 580 flights in one day. Earlier in August, the airline confirmed some flights took off heavier than pilots were told because incorrect passenger counts were transmitted.

“A lot has changed in our operations since July -- so far in September we’ve succeeded in achieving our 80 percent on-time arrival target,” Ryan said. “We have taken aggressive action to improve, including adding spare aircraft and more ground time between flights, and making changes to our technology to give employees and customers a more reliable product.”

The longest tarmac delay July 13 was on United Express Flight 3512 from Chicago to Atlanta, according to the report. It left the gate and sat on the ground for 4 hours and 17 minutes. The flight was operated by Shuttle America, a subsidiary of Indianapolis-based Republic Airways Holdings Inc. (RJET)

SkyWest Inc. (SKYW) and its ExpressJet unit, both of which were operating flights for United, had seven tarmac delays greater than three hours that day, according to the report.

$27,500 Fines

O’Hare authorities closed the ramp area out of concern that lightning could threaten worker safety, Marissa Snow, a spokeswoman for St. George, Utah-based SkyWest, said in an interview.

“We did everything we could to make sure customers were taken care of on board until it was safe to deplane,” Snow said. Passengers were served drinks and snacks, she said.

Karen Pride, a spokeswoman for O’Hare, said in an e-mail that the airport didn’t close the ramp, without elaborating.

Flights operated for United by Mesa Air Group Inc. and GoJet Airlines also were delayed on the ground on July 13, according to the report.

There were 18 domestic flights stuck on the ground for longer than the tarmac rule allowed in July, making it the second-worst month since the policy took effect in April 2010, according to Transportation Department records.

Airlines can be as fined as much as $27,500 a customer if they don’t give passengers a chance to exit stuck planes.

O’Hare Delays

The Transportation Department has issued two fines under the rule -- a $900,000 penalty against AMR’s American Eagle in November, also involving delays during bad weather at O’Hare, and a $90,000 fine issued against JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) last month for a delay at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

The worst month for tarmac delays was October 2011, when 33 planes were delayed on the ground, most in a snowstorm that struck the northeast U.S. That event remains under investigation, Bill Mosley, a department spokesman, said in an interview.

Airlines during the first seven months of this year were on time 82.5 percent of the time, their best record during the 18 years the U.S. has collected data. The flight-cancellation rate, 1.12 percent, was also the lowest reported.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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