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learned Tuesday that it faces a $12,000 fine because it "wasted" regulators' time by reporting a three-hour tarmac delay that did not need to be reported.

United is questioning the fine, saying it just tried to do the right thing. But the regulations are new, and compliance is in the eyes of the Department of Transportation.

"We are disappointed with the fine and strongly disagree that the over-reporting constitutes a violation," the carrier said, in a prepared statement. "It is unfortunate that our effort to be fully transparent with the DOT resulted in our inadvertently reporting four flight delays where, the DOT acknowledges, we complied with regulations and with our own procedures to ensure the comfort and safety of our customers and employees."

A new Transportation Department regulation requires airlines to report all flights that sit on the tarmac for more than three hours. United reported that diversions and delays occurred on May 26, when four mainline flights, unable to land in Denver because of thunderstorms and tornadoes, landed instead in Colorado Springs and sat there. The longest delay was four hours and 41 minutes.

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In each case, as required, after two hours, United fed all the passengers free of charge and also sent buses to the aircraft so passengers could disembark. Some chose to get off, some chose to remain.

After it reported the incidents, United learned that under the regulation, reporting was not necessary because it had enabled passengers to disembark after two hours. As the DOT noted in the consent decree, "the clock stops when passengers are given the opportunity to deplane the aircraft."

United was fined $12,000 nevertheless. In the consent order, the department said that "based on the information reported by United, the enforcement office was led to believe that the flights experienced tarmac delays of three hours or more, and, accordingly, initiated an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the delays.

"In response to the enforcement office's investigation, United examined its data and found that on all four flights, passengers were offered an opportunity to deplane, meaning the doors were open and the brakes were set before the delays reached three hours in duration.

"United, therefore, failed to submit accurate data. United's misreporting of this data wasted valuable department resources, since only after the enforcement office initiated its investigation did it learn that United improperly filed the data." In fact, the mistake was identified only after the information was released to the public in the monthly air traffic consumer report.

The department said that United settled "in order to avoid litigation." The fine is $6,000 within 15 days and $6,000 more if United violates the cease and desist order or the payment provision. No means exist to contest the fine after agreeing to pay it, a DOT spokesman said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.


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Ted Reed