CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- U.S. Department of Transportation officials tell NBC Charlotte an investigation has been launched after reports of extensive tarmac delays at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Saturday evening. Heavy snow fell in the Charlotte area starting around 4pm and continued through the night.

The Department of Transportation will investigate the Charlotte tarmac delays as we do with all reported tarmac delays over the limit in our rules (3 hours domestic, 4 hours international), said Bill Mosley, DOT Public Affairs.

Some passengers on arriving flights had to wait on the tarmac for up to four hours because all of the gates were full. Passengers and airport crews complain to NBC Charlotte that too many planes were allowed to land in the bad weather.

When it got to the 3 hour mark exactly, we were all like 'What does this mean? Can we get off, said a U.S. Airways passenger on a flight from Texas who asked to be named Marci Smith. Smith says she landed at 6:53pm and deplaned at 10:40pm.

Federal guidelines limit the amount of time airlines can keep passengers waiting on the tarmac to three hours before fines can be imposed, upwards of $27,000 a passenger. But the captain on Smith s flight indicated the airlines weren t to blame for the back-ups and delays.

There was a major, major failure on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration to control the flow of traffic into the airport, the pilot could be heard saying over the loud speaker.

Literally at this airport, there are way more planes than there are gates. This situation is not supposed to happen. They're supposed to install ground stops. They lifted the ground stops and they let the airplanes continue to arrive here, he continued.

At some point in time, you ll be able to look back on this and say I was there when things fell apart in Charlotte.

U.S. Airways says passengers who missed their connecting flights were given cots and blankets so they could get some rest. Most of those passengers were able to get to their destinations by Sunday morning. It also offered reimbursements and vouchers to many passengers impacted by the storm.

I feel like they did everything they could've done, said Smith, who received a $300 voucher.

U.S. Airways wouldn t comment on how the F.A.A. handled the snow storm and grounds stops Saturday.

The F.A.A. referred NBC Charlotte to the U.S. DOT for comment. USDOT officials say their investigation into the tarmac delays at Charlotte Douglas may take a year or longer.

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