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United Airlines to pay $2.25M fine for arranging special Newark-Columbia flight

Chuck Crumbo
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United Airlines has agreed to pay a $2.25 million fine for arranging a special flight between Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and Columbia Metropolitan Airport for the benefit of the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

The fine is part of a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office of New Jersey that also requires United to institute substantial reforms to its compliance program, the U.S. Attorney’s office said Thursday.

The fine is part of the fallout over U.S. Attorney’s investigation of David Samson, the former port authority chairman and an ally of N.J. Gov. Chris Christie. Samson admitted that he pressured United to resume the flight from Newark to Columbia, which is near his vacation home in Aiken, by removing United’s request for a hangar at the Newark airport from a board agenda, according to court documents.

The 76-year-old Samson faces up to two years in prison, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Jamie Fox, who at the time was a paid consultant and lobbyist for United Continental Holdings Inc., the Chicago-based parent company of United Airlines, was charged in a separate criminal complaint with conspiring to commit bribery, according to a press release.

Former United CEO Jeff Smisek and two other United executives resigned in September following United’s own investigation. Neither Smisek nor the other former United executives have been charged with criminal wrongdoing.

United operated the Newark-Columbia flight, which became known as the “chairman’s flight,” between Sept. 6, 2012 and April 1, 2014. Samson admitted in court that he used the service 27 times to fly to Columbia and then drive to Aiken, about 50 miles from Columbia, so he could spend weekends with his wife at his second home, authorities said. The service was discontinued three days after Samson resigned as Port Authority chairman.

The load factor on the Newark-Columbia non-stop service averaged in the “low 50s,” Dan Mann, executive director of the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, meaning that the plane was slightly more than half-full. The average for all passenger flights in and out of Columbia is more than 80%, Mann said in an interview.

“Service underperformed, and we discussed that with United on several occasions,” Mann said. “No notice when it was pulled, but we were not surprised given the low number of passengers.”

Airport employees didn’t know Samson was on the flights, Mann added.

Commenting on Samson’s plea, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement: “This kind of case shakes public confidence in our institutions of government when people who are so accomplished, and who have occupied so many positions of public trust, misuse their authority to get something for themselves. It’s a betrayal of our trust and what we have the right to expect from those in public life and it makes the job of every honest public employee just that much harder.”

Samson served as New Jersey Attorney General from 2002 to 2003 and was the founding member and chairman of the law firm Wolff & Samson PC. 

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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