The DOT hears our SOS

By | December 19th, 2010

It turns out that all the negative things that happened to air travelers in 2010 – invasive body scans, multiplying fees, erupting volcanoes – were offset by at least one positive change: an increasingly passenger-friendly Transportation Department.

The federal government introduced new rules to help air travelers and enforced the regulations already on the books with a fervor unlike any administration in recent memory.

“Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is leading the first consumer-centered DOT in the history of commercial aviation,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel interests. “And he’s doing so in a very thoughtful and sophisticated manner.”

In the spring, the agency imposed a controversial rule that effectively limited tarmac delays to three hours. A series of proposed consumer protection initiatives that would, among other things, strengthen airlines’ customer service requirements, force carriers to display airfares and optional fees to allow better side-by-side price comparisons, and boost fines for overbooking were proposed over the summer and are expected to become finalized in early 2011. If approved, they could change the way Americans fly more than any government action since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.

And a year-end tally of DOT’s fines suggests that the agency has surpassed last year’s enforcement actions against airlines that didn’t meet its standards. For 2010, the department’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, the nation’s top airline cops, issued 47 tickets totaling $3.44 million in civil penalties. Last year, it issued 30 tickets totaling $2.6 million in penalties.

The fines include punishing Delta Air Lines to the tune of $100,000 for allegedly distributing a misleading brochure about baggage compensation; a $40,000 fine against US Airways for failing to quote a full airfare to customers on its Web site; and a $30,000 fine against El Al for not complying with international laws in its baggage policy.

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“The Department of Transportation has made real efforts to give air travelers a break,” says San Diego-based aviation lawyer Jerry Sterns.

And it has done so without breaking the airline industry. Indeed, initial fears that the department was being too heavy-handed with air carriers, particularly when it comes to tarmac delays, proved to be unfounded, says Paul Ruden, the senior vice president for legal and industry affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents. “Consumers are being treated better, and the airline world has not collapsed.”

Quite the contrary. The U.S. airline industry is wrapping up a banner year and is expected to earn $5.1 billion in profits in 2010, according to one estimate.

Earlier this fall, the Transportation Department issued a statement saying that the new tarmac-delay rule was “working as planned,” and this month, it reported that there had been no delays of more than three hours for the month of October, the first time this has happened since the new rule went into effect.

But the department isn’t without its critics. Some worry that the government’s declarations that the tarmac-delay rule is working are premature. They point out that last summer’s weather was unusually storm-free, limiting the number of delays, and they cite research by aviation analysts Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks suggesting that the rule caused an increase in canceled flights over the summer, leaving 384,000 passengers stranded, and that an additional 49,600 air travelers experienced gate returns and delays because of the rules.