Aviation News

August 21, 2012

DOT Fines JetBlue and Orbitz Over Tarmac Delay and Baggage Fee Rules

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood goofing off with President Barack Obama at the White House. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House)

The US Department of Transportation handed down $140,000 in fines to JetBlue and Orbitz on Monday for violating two consumer protection rules.

In the JetBlue case, the airline was fined $90,000 for failing to tell passengers of a flight delayed at the gate that they were allowed to deplane if they wanted to. Orbitz was fined $50,000 for pushing a baggage fee disclaimer too far down their webpage.

According to the DOT, on March 3rd, JetBlue Flight 645, the carrier’s 7:30 pm service from New York-JFK to San Francisco, began boarding at 7:06 pm. Departure was delayed, however, first by a mechanical problem, and then by an issue involving the boarding of military personnel.

The plane’s doors were not closed until 9:55 pm, and in the intervening time, passengers onboard were never told that they were allowed to exit the aircraft to the terminal. Under the DOT’s tarmac delay rules, the crew of a flight delayed at the gate is required to notify passengers every 30 minutes that they may deplane if they wish.

According to DOT documents, JetBlue admitted that its tarmac delay contingency plan had failed to cover every aspect of the DOT regulation, but that by leaving the door open, passengers were free to get off the plane if they wished, and one passenger did do so. In addition, the airline provided every passenger with a one way flight voucher.

In the other case, Orbitz was fined $50,000 for failing to prominently disclose baggage fees when customers searched for flights.

From the DOT’s consent order:

As a ticket agent, Orbitz is subject to the baggage fee disclosure requirements of 14 CFR 399.85(b). However, for a short period of time after January 24, 2012, although Orbitz’ website disclosed on the first webpage in which it offered fare quotations for specific itineraries that additional fees for baggage may apply and where consumers could see those fees, the location of the disclosure may have required a user to scroll to the bottom of the first webpage and therefore, was not clear and prominent as required by section 399.85(b) and 49 U.S.C. § 41712.

The DOT’s consent order concedes that although Orbitz recognized and quickly corrected the problem, a fine was still warranted.

As is customary in such cases, the “headline fine” is not what the defendant actually pays. Orbitz has been ordered to pay half of its fine, or $25,000, within 30 days. The remainder will be waived so long as the site keeps its nose clean for the next year.

JetBlue will pay Uncle Sam just $20,000, with the DOT crediting $25,000 for the flight vouchers the airline already issued. (Note: The actual value of the vouchers was over $31,000.) Like the Orbitz deal, the other $45,000 will be forgotten if JetBlue does not incur any further violations in the coming year.

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