Claiming it had better things to do, the Department of Transportation issued only $1.2 million in airline fines last year, even as consumer complaints over fees and delays continued to rise. Five years ago, the agency issued over $8 million in fines, but now, they say they’re too busy working on “consumer rulemaking” and “consumer forums” to ensure that airlines honor consumer protection laws.
The Department of Transportation is dogged by a confidence problem, unwilling to accept that they have the power to defend consumers.
Consumer advocates complain the DOT has taken a very narrow view of what it can enforce, focusing primarily on whether airlines and travel companies include fees and surcharges in advertised fares and whether they comply with disability-access requirements. Under federal law, DOT can investigate “unfair and deceptive practices,” but because the U.S. doesn’t have “passengers’ rights” legislation, there aren’t many specific regulations on consumer rights in air travel.
“With the exception of some laws and rules on handicapped access, it’s been pretty much the dead letter,” said Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project. “They ignore consumers.”
Even better, the few fines the agency does issue have little effect.
DOT has historically taken a lenient stance on fines against airlines, typically forgiving half of assessed penalties if airlines or travel companies don’t get caught in the same transgression again for a year. Additional amounts are often forgiven if the airline spends money on training employees on policies such as handling disabled passengers or even reprogramming computer systems to properly display fuel surcharges and other airline-imposed fees charged to all customers.
Of the $1.2 million the DOT assessed in fines last year, for example, the most the agency will collect is $527,500.
Fantastic! What consumers really need is a Passenger’s Bill of Rights to help them fight abusive airlines. The incoming administration could also help by installing people in the Department of Transportation who believe that the agency is there to defend not just airlines, but passengers too.