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Flights having long Tarmac delays in busy June drop

Only three flights sat on the Tarmac for more than three hours in June compared with nearly 300 a year ago, the government said yesterday. But airlines didn't cancel more flights to avoid potentially massive fines for those long delays.

All the flights that exceeded the limit were operated by United Airlines, and each topped the three-hour time by five minutes or less. All were flying out of Chicago's O'Hare airport on the same day - June 18 - when thunderstorms and winds battered the area. United later canceled two of the flights that were held up.

United said in a statement that the weather prevented employees from safely loading and unloading aircraft at a few points during the day. The airline said it gave passengers food, drinks and regular updates. It also provided compensation to customers on the canceled flights. All those steps are required by the Department of Transportation.

The maximum fine under the rule is $27,500 per passenger, which could add up to $5 million or more for a fully packed airplane, but the department rarely imposes maximum fines.

"This is extremely positive news for consumers," Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, told Bloomberg News. "Airlines have surprised everyone in their ability to respond to this rule in short order."

United is the predominant carrier at O'Hare, handling about 31 percent of flights.

A spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, which represents carriers, said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg that airlines "will continue to fully comply with the new tarmac delay rule."

There was no limit to time on the tarmac in June 2009, when 268 flights were delayed for more than three hours. June is one of the busiest months for air travel. It's also one of the stormiest months of the year.

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