Does penalizing airlines for customer service infractions do any good?

The Department of Transportation fined airlines $4.5 million in 2016 for infractions ranging from lengthy tarmac delays to failing to compensate passengers for lost luggage, almost double last year’s amount and the highest since 2013.

The DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division, which is responsible for ensuring that airlines follow federal regulations, issued 23 consent orders — voluntary agreements worked out between the agency and an airline that generally have the same effect as a court order — in 2016, up from 15 last year. It’s the third-highest number, in terms of civil penalties, in 10 years.

But it isn’t clear whether these actions are benefitting the passengers they’re supposed to protect. Industry watchers say the numbers don’t tell the full story — something you already know if you’ve flown this year.

The year’s biggest enforcement action was a $2 million fine against United Airlines for violating federal disability assistance regulations. Investigators found numerous instances in which the airline failed to return passengers’ wheelchairs, other mobility aids or assistive devices to them in a timely manner. It also said the airline failed to return them to passengers in the condition in which the airline received them. United says the complaints it received represented “a very small number” when compared to the number of requests for wheelchair assistance it received.

One of the most interesting enforcement actions, and a sign that the DOT is taking its full-fare advertising rule seriously, is a $150,000 fine levied against VivaAerobus, a Mexican discount airline. (The rule stipulates that the full price of an airline ticket, including all mandatory taxes and fees, must be displayed in the price quote.) In response to a consumer complaint, the agency found that VivaAerobus advertised fares that did not include a mandatory “issuance” fee.

The fee could not be avoided and was not disclosed to the passenger until the final step in the booking process. The government also found that VivaAerobus used what it called the “opt-out” method of selling optional services, which preselected several optional services and required that customers remove them before finalizing the booking to avoid being charged for them. The airline blamed the infractions on a website error.

Several enforcement orders were addressed through a sting operation called “Task Force Lightning,” an undercover operation in which plainclothes DOT investigators visited a dozen American airports to ensure that airlines’ front-line employees were disclosing their obligations for compensating passengers. Airlines were dinged for infractions including improper disclosure of baggage compensation rules and providing inaccurate denied-boarding compensation information. The fines were relatively small, ranging from $30,000 to $45,000, but as I noted in an earlier column, DOT insiders say that the goal of the task force was education, not punishment.

Ben Edelman, a university professor based in Boston whose complaint resulted in a $40,000 fine against British Airways for inaccurately quoting taxes, fees and carrier charges on its U.S. website, says the government takes its time evaluating customer complaints. For example, he says, one grievance he filed against American Airlines for using the label “tax” for its own surcharges has been pending since Dec. 12, 2013.

Industry critics are also unhappy with the size of the DOT fines, saying they are not a significant deterrent. Airlines collect about $250 billion in revenue each year for travel to, from and within the United States, which means their DOT fines represent about 0.002 percent of their profits.

By comparison, the average traffic ticket ($150) is about 0.3 percent of the median household income of $55,775. Imagine if every speeding ticket were suddenly cut by a factor of 100, so that the average ticket was 0.003 percent of your annual income. Would you take a $1.50 speeding ticket seriously?

The DOT says the fines make a difference and are based on a variety of factors, such as the consumer harm caused by the violation, whether the airline profited from the infraction and whether it’s a repeat offense. “We try to figure out an amount that’s high enough to have a deterrent value,” says Blane Workie, assistant general counsel for Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings.

Consumer advocates say that while they’re encouraged by this year’s enforcement actions, the DOT has focused on some issues while ignoring others. The takeaway from “Task Force Lightning” is that consumers still don’t know their rights, and more needs to be done to keep them informed, says Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, an advocacy group for air travelers. He thinks that the DOT needs to begin posting some of the rules that deal with lost-luggage compensation and denied-boarding statements at airports, so passengers will know their rights.

“It would keep the airlines honest,” Leocha says.

But would it make air travel any better? It’s hard to tell.

“Given the puny financial settlements, the real test of effectiveness should be whether airlines comply with the promises in these consent agreements,” says consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck. “But there’s no evidence of DOT follow-up audits of compliance with these consent decrees, or of enhanced penalties for repeat violations — even though violating a consent agreement is contempt of court.”

If you’re an airline shareholder or if you’re fortunate enough to be sitting in first class, you probably have nothing to complain about in 2016. The North American airline industry is expected to earn $22.9 billion this year, the fifth consecutive profitable year for the business. Premium cabins are becoming more lavish than ever as airlines pile the perks on their best customers. But if you’re stuck in the back of the plane, in what seems to be a shrinking seat, having to pay extra for every little amenity, it’s hard to feel air travel is regulated at all. And no amount of fines imposed by the DOT will change that.

Does penalizing airlines for customer service infractions do any good?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at,,, and

Elliott Advocacy 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

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy 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

Elliott Advocacy 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

Elliott Advocacy 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.

Elliott Advocacy 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.

Elliott Advocacy 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.

Elliott Advocacy 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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy 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

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy 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

Elliott Advocacy 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.

Elliott Advocacy 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. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy 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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by 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

Elliott Advocacy 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 to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy 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,, 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.

Elliott Advocacy 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.

Send this to a friend