Outside of death by fiery crash, which clearly has not happened to me yet, there are few things that bother me more than the overpriced drinks at airport bars. High on that list, or perhaps topping it, is waiting on the tarmac once the plane has boarded. At least in the bar I can largely avoid breathing recycled air of unknown germ quantity and choose whether or not another cocktail is in order. It seems that the U.S. Department of Transportation might agree with me. Now, I know they don’t care about me, but nonetheless its nice to see that the DOT levied a record fine on United Airlines today for stranding its passengers on the tarmac.

Department of Transportation

Department of Transportation’s accumulated fine

The record fine of $1.1 million is for 13 flights carrying a total of 939 passengers delayed longer than three hours during severe thunderstorms on July 13, 2012. Some flights were as little as 2 minutes over the limit, but one was held 4 hours and 17 minutes. Thunderstorms be damned, apparently.

On two of these flights, United added to the fun by bringing inoperable bathrooms to the party.

“We are committed to complying with the tarmac delay regulations and we continue to improve our procedures while maintaining the safety of our customers and co-workers,” said United spokeswoman Mary Ryan.

Alan Bender on tarmac violations

Alan Bender, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said that the Department of Transportation has shied away from seeking the maximum fine on airlines for tarmac violations but felt this might be changing.

“It is pretty clear that until recently the Department of Transportation (DOT) has only been slapping the wrists of carriers that have apparently violated the tarmac rule,” Bender said. “I feel the DOT has no choice but to start playing tough as it may be the case that carriers are testing the DOT’s resolve to throw the book at them.”

Unfortunately for passengers, these fines will simply be passed on to them through additional fees in their growing incarnations.

Since April 2010, airlines have been unable to keep passengers on the tarmac for over three hours without giving them the option of disembarking. This has been largely obeyed given the threat to airlines of a $27,500 fine per passenger if not followed.

This potential fine has brought the number of tarmac delays down markedly. For the year, nearly half of the tarmac violations occurred on the day when the front landing gear of a Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV) plane collapsed upon landing, forcing LaGuardia to close temporarily.