Ask travelers what the federal government did for them this year, and you’ll probably get a shrug, at best — or a rant about sequestration, national park closings and the Transportation Security Administration, at worst.
But there’s actually a specific answer: Federal agencies did a lot more than you might think. And, in at least one prominent case, a lot less.
When it comes to consumer protections, two agencies carried much of the water in 2013: the Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees airlines and motorcoach safety in the United States, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has a broad jurisdiction ranging from time-share sales to hotels. This year, the U.S. Department of Justice also played a central role in protecting travelers with a halfhearted attempt to block the creation of the nation’s largest airline.
The DOT’s office of Aviation Consumer Protection has so far issued a record $6.9 million in fines for 2013, up from $4.1 million in 2012. Its fines have grown at an almost exponential pace in recent years. Consider that as recently as 2008, the agency wrote only $1.1 million worth of tickets to the airline industry.
“Travelers have rights,” says Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “And we will continue to hold the industry accountable.”
The DOT’s crime blotter, which you can find online, makes for fascinating reading. There’s American Airlines, fined $20,000 in November for advertising a kids-fly-free package that was not, in fact, free. There’s United Airlines, hit with a $1.1 million penalty in October for allowing 13 flights to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without offering passengers an opportunity to get off the planes. And there’s a $750,000 fine against Delta Air Lines this summer for allegedly failing to inform its passengers of their rights to compensation after they were denied boarding.
The agency also put ticket agents in its cross hairs in 2013, penalizing companies for a variety of infractions, including failure to reveal a full fare (Legendary Journeys) to omitting the details of a codesharing flight (AAA Mid-Atlantic).
Even with the impressive increase in fines, the enforcement actions seem relatively small compared with the size of some of the penalties, which can run into the millions of dollars, that the Federal Aviation Administration imposed against airlines. And a careful reading of the DOT settlement agreements reveals that half the fine is often forgiven, as long as there are no future violations. (So far in 2013, the agency has forgiven $2 million in fines.) To some air travelers, that seems like a slap on the wrist.
But the DOT says that the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The fines aren’t meant to be punitive so much as preventive — which is to say that they’re intended to correct a customer service problem across the industry. By that measure, most of the DOT enforcements work.
The FTC, which in late 2012 warned 22 hotel operators to improve the way they disclose mandatory hotel “resort” fees, continued to push the issue in 2013. The agency’s warning letters strongly encouraged the companies to review their Web sites and ensure that their ads don’t misrepresent the total price of a hotel room, but stopped short of calling resort fees unfair and deceptive. “Nearly all” the hotels complied, according to the FTC.