Transportation Department steps up efforts in aviation consumer protection

Attention, air travelers: The government has your back.

The Transportation Department’s airline cops have written big tickets in recent months, including a $375,000 fine against Spirit Airlines for, among other things, failing to comply with denied-boarding compensation rules, and a $600,000 fine against an online travel company called Ultimate Fares, for advertising violations.

“Aviation consumer protection is one of my top priorities, and we are taking a fresh look at the industry from that perspective,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told me recently.

Even air travelers are impressed with the “new” Department of Transportation, which, if you listen to the buzz, appears to be protecting consumers for the first time in years.

Count passengers like G. Logan Jordan, a professor at Purdue University’s business school, among the converted. Northwest Airlines wanted to charge him for his checked luggage on a recent flight to Florida, even though he’d booked his ticket before the airline added a baggage fee. So he contacted DOT for help.

I’ll get to the rest of Jordan’s story in just a minute. But first, let me ask: Does the government really have your back? Or is this latest show of support for air travelers just a flight of fantasy?

I’m not unbiased on this issue. I’d like the government to take a more active role in helping travelers in general and air travelers in particular. Enforcing the existing consumer protection laws would not only make my job as an ombudsman easier, it would also improve the quality of your next flight, car rental, hotel stay or cruise immeasurably.

In other words, I want to believe.

Jordan now does. After Northwest repeatedly turned down his request to refund the luggage fees, he contacted DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. An agency employee picked up his case, asking Northwest whether it could review his request.

“Suddenly my logic was crystal clear to Northwest,” Jordan said. “Within a day, I had a refund.”

In fairness, my friends at DOT furnished me with the good professor’s name as an example of someone whom the agency helped. Not every ending is happy. Consider the case of Jan Hoeter, who missed a connection while flying from Pittsburgh to Hamburg, primarily because of a mechanical problem. He waited an extra five hours without any compensation from the carrier.

The agency’s response: Airlines do not guarantee their schedules. “DOT does not regulate this issue, and there is no law that requires airlines to provide you compensation unless it is an involuntary denied boarding,” a representative wrote to Hoeter.

How do you persuade the government to advocate for you? You can call 202-366-2220, contact DOT online (http://airconsumer.dot.gov) or write to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, D.C. 20590. The division tries to respond “within one to three days,” said a spokesman, and brief, factual queries tend to be most effective.

The question of whether your call for help will do any good can’t be answered with anecdotes. So how about a few numbers? The Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings office had 40 staffers in 2009, more than twice the number it had a decade ago.

In terms of consent orders — the rough equivalent of citations issued to lawbreaking travel companies — the numbers haven’t notably gone up or down. A total of 256 orders have been issued since 2000, and except for that year, in which just nine tickets were written, they’ve fluctuated from a low of 20 (in 2001 and 2008) to a high of 38 in 2004. Last year, the office issued 30 consent orders.

Perhaps the most telling number — and it’s one that undermines the agency’s argument that it has turned over a new leaf — is the amount in fines assessed by the Aviation Consumer Protection Division. The grand total, from 2000 to the present, is only $28 million. Bear in mind that on most consent orders, half the fine is forgiven if there are no future violations.

The fines are up and down year by year in a far more noticeable way, from a paltry $265,000 in 2000 — which, for those of you keeping track, and who think only Democrats care about consumer advocacy issues, was the last full year of Bill Clinton’s presidency — to a high of $8.1 million in 2003. Do I need to remind you who was in office that year? In 2009, the department assessed $2.5 million in fines.

That’s a respectable number, but hardly a record. The division fined airlines and other travel companies significantly more in 2004 and 2005 ($5.6 million and $3.9 million). To DOT’s credit, last year’s fines were the highest since 2005.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that although the Transportation Department can’t quite say that it’s back to fighting the good fight, it seems to be well on its way. But the agency needs to put some big numbers on the board in 2010 if it wants travelers to believe it.

For what it’s worth, I do.

(Photo: hsuyo/Flickr Creative Commons)

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