In 2010, the DOT Heard Our SOS
It turns out that all the negative things that happened to air travelers in 2010 -- invasive body scans, multiplying fees, erupting volcanoes -- were offset by at least one positive change: an increasingly passenger-friendly
The federal government introduced new rules to help air travelers and enforced the regulations already on the books with a fervor unlike any administration in recent memory.
In the spring, the agency imposed a controversial rule that effectively limited tarmac delays to three hours. A series of proposed consumer protection initiatives that would, among other things, strengthen airlines' customer service requirements, force carriers to display airfares and optional fees to allow better side-by-side price comparisons, and boost fines for overbooking were proposed over the summer and are expected to become finalized in early 2011. If approved, they could change the way Americans fly more than any government action since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.
And a year-end tally of DOT's fines suggests that the agency has surpassed last year's enforcement actions against airlines that didn't meet its standards. For 2010, the department's
The fines include punishing
And it has done so without breaking the airline industry. Indeed, initial fears that the department was being too heavy-handed with air carriers, particularly when it comes to tarmac delays, proved to be unfounded, says
Quite the contrary. The U.S. airline industry is wrapping up a banner year and is expected to earn
Earlier this fall, the
But the department isn't without its critics. Some worry that the government's declarations that the tarmac-delay rule is working are premature. They point out that last summer's weather was unusually storm-free, limiting the number of delays, and they cite research by aviation analysts
"I have no problem with DOT trying to improve customer service, as long as everything is well thought through," says
Miller says that for the DOT to cement its legacy for consumer-friendliness, it must introduce new initiatives that would make air travel noticeably better. One place to start is a partnership with the
"DOT needs to address the indiscriminate use of fees to generate extra revenue for the airlines," he says. "The reaction of airline passengers to unbundling of service fees has been mixed, and there has been litigation over surcharges, airport concession fees, government fees and passenger facilities charges."
He says he found the government receptive to his ideas and described LaHood as a "very proactive passenger-rights DOT secretary."
There's a sense that the department's work to protect airline passengers is just beginning, and that any future consumer protections must be weighed against the cost to the airline industry.
Imposing new rules doesn't hurt anyone in a year when air carriers are profitable. But what happens when the industry falls back into the red, as it inevitably will?
"In carrying out our aviation enforcement activities, we have tried to strike a balance between vigorously protecting the rights of air travelers and not being overly punitive to the companies against whom we assess fines," LaHood told me.
In the end, putting the passengers first may be the legacy of the current
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