The $1.1 million fine is the largest levied against an airline since 2010, when new rules took effect that bar airlines from stranding passengers on the tarmac for longer than three hours without giving them the opportunity to leave the plane, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The delays involved 13 United and United Express planes on July 13, 2012, a day when severe thunderstorms and lightning had caused several ramp closures and disrupted the movement of aircraft at O'Hare, the nation's second largest airport. Toilets weren't working on two of those planes.
"It is unacceptable for passengers to be stranded in planes on the tarmac for hours on end," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. "We will continue to require airlines to adopt workable plans to protect passengers from lengthy tarmac delays and carry out these plans when necessary."
The airline exceeded the three-hour limit by as much as an hour and 17 minutes, and didn't contact airport personnel or other airlines for help, according to the department.
United spokeswoman Mary Ryan said the airline was "committed to complying with the tarmac regulations and we continue to improve or procedures while maintaining the safety of our customers and co-workers."
United will pay the government $475,000, while $185,000 will be used to compensate affected passengers, including those who were delayed on the tarmac for less than three hours. The airline will also use $440,000 to acquire and maintain a surveillance system to monitor the location of each of its planes on the airfield.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.
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