deltaIn a surprise move, the Department of Transportation has fined two airlines for failing to disclose codesharing flights and disregarding their denied-boarding rules. United Airlines faces $80,000 in penalties for neglecting to inform travelers that certain flights were operated by another airline. And Delta Air Lines is being fined $375,000 for bumping passengers from its flights without compensation.

Here’s the consent order for Delta (PDF) and United (PDF).

The backstory is interesting.

The Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings staff made a number of phone calls to United’s reservations line in January to determine if the airline’s employees were advising consumers of the code-share status of flights being operated by other carriers. The United reservations agents answering those calls failed to disclose the code-share status of the flights in question during a substantial number of those calls, according to the government.

In Delta’s case, an inspection of the carrier’s passenger complaint records from January to July 2008 and of passenger complaints involving Delta during 2008 sent directly to the Enforcement Office, revealed “numerous instances in which the carrier bumped passengers, but did not follow one or more of the provisions” of its contract of carriage, the legal agreement between Delta and the passenger.

“These failures,” the government notes in its consent order, “constituted unfair and deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition.”

Could this be the beginning of a government crackdown on an airline industry that’s had its way in Washington for eight long years?

Don’t hold your breath. The airlines will pay only a fraction of the penalties — Delta will pay $175,000 and United will pay $40,000 — with the balance to be forgiven as long as they don’t become repeat offenders.

I think we need to see a few more of these fines before I can say we’re at a turning point. But this is a good start.