US Airways Snowstorm Delays Trigger U.S. Investigation

US Airways Group Inc. and its regional partners are being investigated by the U.S. Transportation Department for the most widespread incident of long tarmac delays since a U.S. rule took effect in 2010.

Passengers were stranded on 34 planes during a snowstorm at the carrier’s Charlotte, North Carolina, hub, in February. The incident was responsible for all U.S. tarmac delays of three hours or more during the month, the Department of Transportation said today.

It was the most delays for any month, not just for a day, or by a single airline since regulators began imposing penalties in April 2010, according to a department website.

Airlines face fines of as much as $27,500 a passenger for keeping them stranded on planes for more than three hours at a time.

Passengers were trapped onboard US Airways and US Airways Express flights during a snowstorm of greater magnitude and duration than forecast, said Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for the carrier, based in Tempe, Arizona.

“We’re cooperating fully with the DOT investigation and also conducting our own investigation simultaneously,” Mohr said in an interview.

The previous high number of U.S. tarmac delays in a month since regulations were tightened occurred in July 2012, when 18 flights exceeded the limit, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. There were 268 delays in June 2009, before fines were imposed.

Food, Water

US Airways made sure passengers were kept informed and had access to onboard food, water and operating lavatories, Mohr said. The airline provided partial refunds for customers whose travel was disrupted and offered vouchers for a future flight, she said.

The Transportation Department fined AMR Corp.’s American Eagle $900,000 in 2011 after passengers were stranded on 15 planes at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Two other U.S. carriers have been fined for delays: United Continental Holdings Inc. for $130,000 in February and JetBlue Airways Corp. for $90,000 last August.

The tarmac-delay rule was created after incidents in which passengers weren’t allowed to get off stranded planes that lacked food, water or working lavatories. It now covers non U.S.-based airlines as well.

Four international carriers have been fined, all in the past eight months: Caribbean Airlines Ltd. for $100,000 last month; Copa Airlines of Panama for $150,000 and Virgin America Inc. for $55,000 in January; and Pakistan International Airlines Corp. for $150,000 in September.

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