Is the Department of Transportation really protecting air travelers?

happy trailsThat’s a question worth asking after the Secretary of Transportation posted a response to a column I wrote about tarmac delays.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he supported my “advocacy on behalf of airline passengers” but expressed disappointment in the column, which was published in Sunday’s Washington Post, for its perceived criticism of his agency. I’ve left a comment on the Secretary’s blog in response, but I wanted to address one of the bigger questions he raises.

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Specifically, do I think DOT is falling down on the job?

Absolutely not. I’ve been covering the agency for years as a consumer advocate, and I haven’t seen this many enforcement actions in a while. I’ve written about almost every one of them on this site, from September’s record $375,000 fine against Spirit Airways to this summer’s fines against Continental, Hawaiian and US Airways for consumer rule violations.

I believe that when it comes to enforcing consumer protections, DOT is doing the best that it can with its current resources.

So what’s the problem? Critics would say — and I would agree with them, to a point — that the agency doesn’t have the means to enforce every consumer rule in the book. That’s one reason that adding another (a three-hour turn-back law) probably doesn’t make any sense.

Another issue is DOT’s relatively narrow mission and how it is interpreted by those within the agency. Here’s its mission statement:

Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.

In talking with observers of the agency and with people within the DOT, I’m left with the impression that their definition of airline “service” isn’t the same as ours, as passengers. DOT seems interested in ensuring that as many cities are served by air, rail and road as possible. When we say “service” we mean that we’re treated like human beings by our airline.

It might be unfair to say consumer protection is an afterthought for the agency, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be DOT’s primary mission.

Is the agency letting passengers down? No. You could argue that the officials who over the years have been responsible for hiring decisions at the DOT, and who have given the agency its directives, have let us down. But LaHood just inherited the agency from a previous administration — an administration that believed in minimal government interference with the airline industry and minimal enforcement of consumer laws.

All of which brings us to Edward Hasbrouck, the customer advocate who I quoted in my story. I’ve known Hasbrouck for many years and respect his opinion. He is a careful observer of the federal government and knows a thing or two about consumer law, which is why I asked him to name his top passenger rights causes. Here’s an annotated version of what he told me, along with a response to LaHood’s post.

If we want to change the system, we can’t blame the good people who work in the Aviation Enforcement Office, or the Secretary. We can’t burden the agency with new laws, which will probably only go unenforced.

Hasbrouck’s point — and I think he’s right — is that we need the leadership in Washington to interpret the agency’s mission statement in a different way. Maybe a little more emphasis on the “enhances the quality of life” and many, many more cops on the beat to make sure the rules are followed by the airlines.

(Photo: freefotouk/Flickr Creative Commons)