The DOT has fined fewer airlines this year. Should you be worried?

If it seems as if airlines are getting away with more passenger-unfriendly behavior, maybe it’s because they are.

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Department of Transportation (DOT), which is responsible for enforcing federal consumer-protection regulations, is on track to punish significantly fewer airlines this year, issuing 18 consent orders for $3.1 million in civil penalties. By comparison, the DOT had 29 orders worth $6.4 million for 2016, which included a $1.6 million fine against American Airlines for violating its tarmac delay rules handed down in mid-December. Barring a last-minute flurry of penalties, 2017 will be a much quieter year for the department.

While the government undertook several important enforcement actions, critics say the department could have done more and acted faster to help consumers. And, in the long term, hands-off regulators may embolden airlines to bend or break the few existing consumer protection regulations for airline passengers.

The DOT fines are important because, thanks to federal preemption, airlines are protected from enforcement actions by individual states. You can only sue an airline in federal court or small-claims court. The Aviation Consumer Protection Division is often passengers’ first, last and only hope for resolving problems.

“The DOT can’t effectively protect consumers from unlawful airline conduct,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group that advocates for corporate-travel managers and their employees. Mitchell says Congress must restore the right of consumers and state attorneys general to sue airlines for unfair or deceptive practices, or unfair methods of competition. “Only then will airlines cease trampling upon consumers’ rights and interests,” he says.

Still, some notable enforcement actions happened in 2017. They include:

●A $1.5 million fine against Frontier Airlines for leaving passengers stranded on planes in a snowstorm in Denver late last year.

●A $400,000 fine, also against Frontier, for violating the DOT’s rules on denied boarding, oversales and passengers with disabilities.

●A $250,000 penalty against American Airlines for failing to process timely refunds

Agency critics say that while the enforcement actions are laudable on one level, they are lacking on another. Perhaps the most glaring oversight: failing to punish United Airlines for its role in the David Dao incident. The airline summoned law-enforcement officers to have the physician hauled off a flight from Chicago to Louisville in April, an incident captured on video and widely shared. Although the Chicago Department of Aviation fired two officers involved in the incident, the DOT declined to take action.

“I think that’s the biggest omission, by far,” says Kendall Creighton, a spokeswoman for FlyersRights.org, a passenger advocacy group. Fining United would have sent a strong message to airlines that dragging passengers off a plane is unacceptable. Instead, the DOT declined to take action, according to documents obtained by the organization under the Freedom of Information Act.

“The Department of Transportation’s investigation focused on those practices which were under our jurisdiction,” says Blane Workie, assistant general counsel for Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings at the DOT. “Specifically, whether United Airlines complied with the department’s oversales rule and federal anti-discrimination statutes enforced by the department. The department did not review the actions of the security officers of the Chicago Department of Aviation because it is not DOT’s role to investigate police conduct.”

Creighton disagrees. “For the Department of Transportation to conclude that United Airlines’ conduct did not warrant an enforcement action is a dereliction of duty,” she says.

Harvard Business School economics professor Ben Edelman, whose complaints to the DOT led to two enforcement actions this year, says the department is moving too slowly on consumer grievances. Indeed, many of the department’s biggest enforcement actions are several years in the making.

“Our goal is to resolve all consumer complaints as efficiently and expeditiously as possible,” says Workie. “Some formal complaints, because of the complexity of the issues raised, do take a long time to resolve.” She notes that enforcement isn’t the department’s only task. During the past year, the office had a lead role in developing new regulations to protect air travelers, received and responded to more than 57,000 informal complaints about airline service, and assisted consumers directly.

Indeed, some say that the DOT deserves to be commended for doing a good job balancing the needs of consumers with the challenges of running an airline. “The fines work to keep things in balance between the flying community and the airlines,” says Dan Markin, a pilot, frequent traveler and corporate-leadership consultant from Charlotte. “Do nothing and the infractions will get worse; fine too much and rising costs will be passed onto the customer, and passengers will decrease.”

Consumer advocates argue that the fines are too low to be effective deterrents to the highly profitable airline industry. Edelman did the math on the DOT’s penalties this year, comparing the value of the fines to the industry’s revenue. He found that they would be the rough equivalent of writing a speeding ticket for 35 cents. “It’s pocket change,” he says.

The long-term effects of a laissez-faire DOT are even more troubling. If it continues on this course, passengers could soon find themselves with nowhere to go when they have a legitimate complaint about a flight.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

This site is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

This site is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

This site is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

This site is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

This site is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

This site is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

This site is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

This site is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

This site is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

This site is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

This site is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

This site is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

This site is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

This site is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

This site is underwritten by Sungard Availability Services

Leveraging more than 35 years of experience, Sungard AS designs, builds and runs critical IT services that help businesses manage complex IT, adapt quickly and build resiliency and availability. A leading provider of critical production and recovery services, Sungard AS partners with customers across the globe, delivering resilient IT systems, infrastructure and recovery services tailored to achieving desired business outcomes.

This site is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

This site is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

This site is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

This site is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.