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Airline Tarmac Delays Drop as U.S. Rule Takes Effect

July 8 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. airline flights stuck for more than three hours on airport tarmacs fell 85 percent in May, the first full month of a rule that subjects carriers to fines for such delays.

Five flights were delayed three hours or longer in May, down from 34 in the same month a year earlier, the second-lowest total since the Transportation Department began collecting the data in October 2008, according to a report today on the agency’s website.

A rule pushed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that took effect April 29 imposes fines as high as $27,500 for each customer when an airline fails to free passengers after three hours on an aircraft. The rule applies to domestic flights.

Four of the five May delays, including an almost five-hour wait that was the longest, were on United Airlines flights bound for Denver and diverted to Colorado Springs, Colorado, on May 26, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics report.

Denver flights were hindered by thunderstorms and low ceilings that day, according to FlightStats.com, which tracks flight movements.

Weather led to further delays after the four flights landed at Colorado Springs, said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the UAL Corp. unit.

“All customers were offered the opportunity to exit the plane and were provided snacks and water as we waited for the weather to improve and air traffic control clearance to safely continue on to Denver,” Medina said today in an e-mail.

Delta Delay

A Delta Air Lines Inc. flight on May 28 from Atlanta to Dallas was the fifth that was delayed by more than three hours, according to the report.

The Transportation Department may not know for a couple months whether the delays in May lead to fines, or if the flights were exempt from the rules because the safety of passengers was at risk or controllers ordered the plane not to return to the gate, said Tammy Jones, an agency spokeswoman.

U.S. carriers posted a 79.9 percent on-time rate in May, down from last year’s 80.5 percent, according to the Transportation Department report on scheduled flights.

Hawaiian Holdings Inc.’s Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time rate in May at 94.3 percent followed by Alaska Air Group Inc.’s Alaska Airlines at 91.5 percent. US Airways Group Inc. finished third at 85.3 percent.

Delta’s Comair Express carrier finished last of 18 airlines that report data to the government, with 67.1 percent of flights arriving on time. AMR Corp.’s American Eagle was second-worst at 73.1 percent followed by Delta at 75.6 percent.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had the best on-time performance in May, at 88.9 percent, while San Francisco International Airport had 72.5 percent on time, the worst among the 29 busiest airports, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics said in the report.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Hughes in Washington at jhughes5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at   or lliebert@bloomberg.net.

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