It’s official! Airlines fines hit a record low in 2019

airline fines

What if the police stopped writing speeding tickets? Air travelers may well ask themselves a similar question, now that the U.S. government has set a record for the lowest number of airline fines in history.

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Transportation Department (DOT), which enforces federal consumer protection regulations, has issued just eight aviation enforcement orders totaling $2.4  million in civil penalties in 2019. The previous low for enforcement actions, set in 2000, was nine.

The latest fine, issued in late December, was a $247,000 penalty for tarmac delays against China Eastern Airlines.

Federal regulators insist they’re just doing their job and that the numbers represent an ebb in airline violations. But consumer advocates say it’s nothing short of a dereliction of duty — not unlike the highway patrol taking an entire year off.

The DOT set a decade low for the dollar amount of fines last year, when it issued 16 enforcement orders totaling just $1.8  million in fines.

“Protecting consumers often involves various activities in addition to taking enforcement action,” says Blane Workie, DOT assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement and proceedings. Those activities include issuing guidance documents regarding consumer protection or civil rights rules or statutes. She points out that the DOT also issues a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report that contains information on the quality of services provided by airlines and ranks the carriers accordingly.

Department of Transportation Fines

Year

Enforcement actions

Total fine (millions)

2019

8

2.4

2018

16

1.8

2017

18

3.1

2016

23

4.5

2015

15

2.4

In other words, enforcement actions tell part of the story.

What the airline fines really mean

But for some consumer advocates, the latest numbers do, indeed, tell a full story. DOT fines are important, in part, because federal preemption protects airlines from enforcement actions by individual states. Aviation Consumer Protection is often passengers’ first, last and only hope for resolving problems.

“It’s incredibly disheartening that the DOT seems to be falling down on the job when it comes to enforcement,” says John Breyault, a vice president at the National Consumers League. “Fliers must depend on the DOT to protect them because the DOT is the only cop on the beat when it comes to consumer protection in the airline marketplace.”

At the same time, passengers say air travel is as painful as ever. I know because as a consumer advocate who specializes in travel complaints, I’ve never been busier.

“Passengers just want to get from place to place without major interruption, be treated well and have their luggage show up when and where they do,” says Mike Maughan, head of global insights for Qualtrics, an experience-management company that conducts consumer satisfaction research.

Here are some of the most significant airline fines of 2019

Among this year’s enforcement actions:

A $1 million fine against American Airlines for violations of the tarmac delay rule between 2015 and 2017

Airlines aren’t allowed to keep their flights waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours for domestic flights and more than four hours for international flights without giving passengers an opportunity to deplane. One of the flights diverted to Austin, Texas, sat on the tarmac for 4 hours and 2 minutes before American let passengers off the flight. All told, there were 13 violations of the tarmac rule, which works out to $76,923 per violation. However, the DOT credited American $450,000 of the assessed penalty for compensation already provided to passengers on the affected flights.

A $750,000 fine against Delta Air Lines, also for tarmac violations

The fines focused on delayed flights in Atlanta in 2017 and Kansas City in 2018. At its Atlanta hub, Delta experienced a system outage that affected 129 mainline flights. Because a gate management system was inoperative, departing flights could not taxi off gates, forcing the arriving flights to hold and wait on taxiways. Delta paid only $300,000 of the assessed penalty; DOT credited the balance to the airline for compensation already paid to passengers.

One of the smaller fines involved Lufthansa

The government says the German carrier in 2016 and 2017 improperly collected taxes that were not due on nonrevenue international tickets sold through Lufthansa’s U.S.-facing website. Specifically, it collected about $18 from passengers that it shouldn’t have. Lufthansa blamed the issue on a software glitch and says it remitted the taxes to the government but refunded the passenger who complained to the DOT. Lufthansa paid only $25,000, half the assessed fine. It will have to pay the rest if it commits another violation.

Do more fines mean better airline service? Not necessarily, DOT says. “DOT has not seen a clear correlation between the number or amount of enforcement fines in a given year and the number of consumer complaints we receive,” Workie says.

For example, in 2016, Aviation Consumer Protection’s enforcement office recorded 28 fines and 17,908 consumer complaints; in 2017, 19 fines and 18,148 complaints; in 2018, 17 fines and 15,541 complaints; and this year, so far, the seven fines and 13,957 complaints.

DOT critics: There’s a bigger picture

Agency watchers agree there’s a bigger picture. Not only have fines nosedived in 2019, but the government has all but abandoned its mission of protecting consumers, according to Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, a Washington passenger advocacy group.

“The drop in airline fines goes along with the DOT’s lack of action on legislated consumer protections,” he says. “DOT’s intentionally not enforcing current consumer protections and is not implementing congressionally mandated consumer protections.”

Among the DOT’s failures: It has not written a much-needed regulation, mandated by Congress, requiring that airlines seat families with young children together without charging them extra. It also has not produced a regulation requiring airlines to refund bag fees when luggage arrives at least 12 hours late. And it has barred consumer representatives from witnessing seat-evacuation tests now underway.

“Airlines are making more money than ever,” Leocha says. “They can afford to be more consumer-friendly. However, DOT is not mandating such actions.”

For air travelers, the takeaway is obvious: Airlines have less to fear from regulators than perhaps ever. While that might not necessarily result in a bad trip, you should still follow your flight attendant’s advice: Fasten your seat belt. Things could get a little bumpy this year.

Posted in The Navigator Tagged , , , ,

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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