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Stranded passengers may not be able to sue, attorney says

November 6, 2011 | 12:00 pm

Wind
JetBlue Airways and the parent company for American Airlines could face stiff fines for stranding hundreds of passengers in planes on an airport tarmac for seven hours during a snowstorm last month. But a lawyer who specializes in business litigation says the passengers probably can’t sue over the ordeal.

JetBlue has apologized and offered to refund the airfares and pay for round-trip tickets for future travel for passengers on six JetBlue flights that were stranded on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Conn., during a heavy storm that disrupted thousands of flights.

Under U.S. Department of Transportation rules, airlines that keep passengers in a grounded plane for three hours or more for domestic flights or four hours or more for international flights can be fined up to $27,000 per passenger.

The agency is investigating both airlines, but a spokesman said the rules exempt airlines that keep passengers on the tarmac because trying to return them to the terminal disrupts airport operations or creates a safety or security problem.

Since the new rule took effect in April 2010, the agency has yet to impose a fine on any airline.

It’s possible that the once-stranded passengers will get nothing more from the airline than the apology, the refunds and the extra airline tickets, said Hugh Totten, a Chicago attorney who has represented airlines in business litigation matters.

“While the new federal regulation limits tarmac delays to three hours, there are several exceptions to the rule,” he said. “Exceptions such as ‘disruption to airport operations’ or ‘passenger safety’ have been put in place, leaving passengers with no leverage for filing suit.”

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-- Hugo Martin

Photo: Some passengers at Bradley International Airport were able to get off a stranded plane. Credit: Erika Pesantes / South Florida Sun Sentinel

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