Low-cost carrier JetBlue Airways Corp. has been fined $90,000 by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) after it failed to inform passengers of their right to leave the aircraft while it sat at the gate during a lengthy delay, officials said.
The incident happened on March 3 when JetBlue Flight 645 was scheduled to depart New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at 7:30 p.m. local time and arrive at San Francisco International Airport in California at 11:16 p.m. local time. The boarding process began on time at 7:06 p.m., but the doors to the aircraft did not close until 9:55 p.m.
As the doors of the aircraft were open, passengers would have been able to exit the aircraft at any time on their own, but DOT rules require airlines to inform passengers of this possibility. An investigation into the March incident revealed that passengers on the aircraft were not notified that they had the right to leave the aircraft while it was stuck at the gate with its doors open.
"Airlines may not leave passengers stranded indefinitely aboard an aircraft, whether on the tarmac or at the gate, and passengers must be told if they are able to leave the plane," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "At DOT, we are committed to protecting consumers when they travel by air, and will continue to take enforcement action when our rules are violated."
JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young, however, said the doors to the aircraft remained open for only one hour and 49 minutes. "When the aircraft door was closed and the plane initially pushed back, three customers requested to return to the gate," she said. "At that time, the aircraft immediately returned to the gate and one customer elected to deplane."
DOT's Aviation Enforcement Office also found that JetBlue's contingency plan for long tarmac delays did not contain the assurance, as required by DOT rules, that passengers on delayed flights will receive notifications about the status of the delay, and the reasons for the delay, every 30 minutes.
Young acknowledged this and said the airline has updated its contingency plan. "Our policy regarding onboard ground delays, outlined in our Bill of Rights, is industry-leading," she said. "However, we did not provide our customers with regular updates in this instance. This is not an example of the JetBlue experience. For this, we fully acknowledge our fault and will comply with the DOT ruling. We now have a fully compliant plan in place."