Air travel in the United States is incredibly safe compared to other modes of transportation.

So the greatest fears most airline passengers have are more about bad service and experiences than with safety issues.  

Tops on the list? After the law that President Trump signed last year cracked down hard on many other contenders, I'd have to go with the fear of being trapped on a tarmac for hours, as your flight is either delayed and never takes off.

Horror stories abound. Passengers were stuck 12 hours on a Delta Air Lines plane in Kansas City last year. United Airlines passengers were stuck on the ground for 14 hours in Newfoundland, Canada in January. And you'll find stories of it happening on other airlines as well.

There ought to be a law, you might say -- and in fact there is. Federal aviation regulations say that passengers have to be allowed to get off a plane if it's sat on a tarmac for three hours for domestic flights, or four hours if the flight is international.

Airlines that go over the limit too often can face fines----and that's exactly what the U.S. Transportation Department announced this week will be happening. The airlines facing monetary penalties:

  • American Airlines, which will have a $1 million fine, for exceeding tarmac delay limits 13 times between December 2015 and January 2017.
  • Delta Air Lines, facing a $750,000 fine for exceeding tarmac delay limits 11 times between January 2017 and February 2018.

"Penalties for violations of the tarmac delay rule vary based on the facts and circumstances in the case, including, but not limited to, the consumer harm, the number of violations, and the violator's compliance disposition and enforcement history," the government said in a statement announcing the fines. 

The causes of the delays? Weather, in some cases. Computer issues in others, according to a USA Today summary of the government action. Both airlines got $450,000 in credit against the fines for compensation they'd already provided to passengers for the delays.

That means American's net fine is $550,000, and Delta's is $300,000. Of course, these aren't exactly existential threats to the companies' bottom lines. 

But they do send a message that someone is at least watching. And for passengers, that's probably second best only to the idea of these kinds of delays never happening in the first place.

Compared to previous years: American was fined $1.6 million in 2016, according to USA Today's reporting on this, which tied the dubious record that Southwest set the year before. In earlier years, Frontier ($1.5 million) and United ($1.1 million) are the only airlines that have been fined more than $1 million.

I invited both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines to comment. Here's American's statement:

"While these delays were the result of exceptional weather events dating as far back as 2015, American takes its responsibility to comply with Department of Transportation rules seriously. 

The safety and well-being of those who choose to fly with us is always our top priority and we regret any inconvenience caused to our customers whose travel plans were disrupted. 

We apologized to those who were impacted by these tarmac delays and have put procedures in place to help better accommodate our customers when inclement weather occurs."

And, here's Delta:

"Delta reiterates its apology to customers who were delayed by the extenuating circumstances detailed in today's consent order by the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

Immediately following the episodes described in 2017 and 2018, Delta provided customers with substantial compensation for the delays including cash reimbursements, SkyMiles and vouchers for future travel.

Delta continually makes adjustments to processes and procedures and has already implemented key learnings.