JetBlue has agreed to pay a $90,000 fine after the carrier failed to inform passengers they could leave an aircraft while its departure was delayed at Kennedy Airport in March.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said Monday that JetBlue is the first carrier to be penalized under a year-old consumer protection rule that is part of federal efforts to prevent passengers' being stranded on board for hours.
JetBlue Flight 645 was scheduled to depart Kennedy for San Francisco at 7:30 p.m. on March 3. Boarding began at 7:06 p.m., but the flight was delayed and the aircraft doors did not close until 9:55 p.m., officials said.
The rule requires that, if passengers are able to leave a delayed plane, airline representatives must let them know. Airline personnel are to make the announcements 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time and at 30-minute intervals.
JetBlue officials said in a statement Monday that Flight 645 passengers were free to leave the plane, and had been given water and access to the lavatories during the delay. But airline spokeswoman Tamara Young said many would not have known they could leave because no announcements were made.
"Our policy regarding onboard ground delays . . . is industry-leading. However, we did not provide our customers with regular updates in this instance," JetBlue said in the statement. "For this, we fully acknowledge our fault and will comply with the DOT ruling."
A passenger complaint led the DOT's Aviation Enforcement Office to investigate the Flight 645 delay, officials said. The agency found passengers were not notified that they could disembark.
The rule was one of several adopted after a series of passenger strandings, including nine full JetBlue planes that sat for more than six hours on the Kennedy tarmac during a February 2007 ice storm.
Another DOT rule in effect since April 2010 requires that domestic passengers not be held in a plane on the tarmac for more than three hours, with some exceptions for safety, security or air traffic control reasons. Under another measure that took effect in August 2011, passengers aboard international flights operating at U.S. airports cannot be held on an aircraft on the tarmac for more than four hours.
Kate Hanni, of California, who started the passenger rights advocacy group FlyersRights.org in 2006 after being stranded in a plane for nine hours, advised passengers to keep complaining.
"We're really grateful the DOT is fining airlines when they violate rules," she said. "We hope the department takes all such incidents very seriously and imposes fines because the behavior won't stop otherwise."