A more activist Transportation Department, which set a record in 2011 for the number of fines it issued against airlines for violating aviation consumer-protection rules, appears to have maintained its momentum this past year.
In 2012, the department issued 49 fines for consumer rule violations and assessed $3,610,000 in penalties, exceeding the previous record of 47 fines and $3,264,000 in penalties issued in 2011.
Among its most significant actions: policing new rules that require airlines and travel agencies to quote a full fare and disclose baggage fees, and fining the first foreign airline for a tarmac delay.
Consumers deserve to be treated fairly when they fly, said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who called protecting air travelers rights a high priority.
While the fines may seem small in comparison with other penalties imposed by federal regulators, theyre important for two reasons, say insiders:
They are a significant increase from the past, signaling a no-nonsense approach to consumer protection from the federal government. (Consider that in 2010, DOTs Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement division, which is charged with enforcing consumer laws for airlines operating in the United States, issued just 27 orders and $1.7 million in fines.)
Each enforcement sets a precedent and puts travel companies and their lawyers on notice that the activity theyre engaging in is illegal and wont be tolerated.
In the end, that benefits all air travelers.
But the departments enforcement actions in 2012 you can find most of them online tell a bigger story than that of a government trying to protect air travelers. Theyre a road map of service meltdowns and gotchas that, seen as a whole, provide a useful guide for anyone flying this year.
For example, one of the most important DOT actions of 2012 involved enforcing a rule that requires airlines and travel agencies to quote a full airfare, including any mandatory fees and surcharges. In July, DOT fined Travelocity $180,000 for failing to include fuel surcharges in some international fares through a feature on its site called a flexible date tool. The online agency said that it wasnt capable of including certain carrier-imposed surcharges, such as fuel surcharges, in its price quotes.
To address the departments concerns, Travelocity promptly deleted the flexible date tool from its site. But the takeaway for air travelers in 2013 is clear: Although DOTs interpretation of its full-fare rule is unambiguous, the travel industrys may not be. Always double-check the price before clicking the buy button.
Another key enforcement action came in October, when DOT fined the Australian airline Qantas for failing to disclose its luggage fees. Under new regulations, airlines are required to show baggage fees clearly and prominently on the first screen where they quote a fare for a specific itinerary. The government alleged that Qantas waited until later in the booking process to reveal the fees. Qantas said it did disclose the charges, but in a different place on its site. It was fined $100,000.
For consumers, such an enforcement action carries an obvious lesson: Always be on the lookout for hidden fees, even when theyre supposed to be disclosed up front, because an airlines understanding of disclosure may not match yours, and the potential for unpleasant surprises still exists.
Enforcement officials with whom I spoke for this column pointed to one more enforcement action thats worth noting, involving a rare tarmac delay. It happened in October 2011, when a Pakistan International Airlines flight was diverted from New York to Washington after a freak snowstorm. Although the aircraft remained on the tarmac for more than four hours, passengers werent allowed to deplane, violating one of DOTs newer regulations involving lengthy ground delays.
The airline blamed a variety of technical and logistical problems for the delay. After an investigation, the government fined it $150,000 in September.
Fortunately, tarmac delays of more than three hours are an anomaly. In the last three months of reportable data to DOT, covering August, September and October 2012, there were only two such delays, which exceeded the three-hour limit by only four and six minutes. Had the passengers on the Pakistan flight been aware of the governments new tarmac-delay rules, they might have alerted the crew that it was in violation of those regulations and they potentially could have been spared a lengthy wait in a parked aircraft.
DOT probably will extend its enforcement record in 2013, when it is expected to unveil a draft of new consumer-protection rules that would require airlines to disclose more of their fees and make airfares easier to compare. Its also working on new regulations that would give disabled air travelers greater access to air travel.
We will continue our efforts to improve the air-travel experience for consumers, LaHood said.
Thats a promise airline passengers would like him to keep.
Christopher Elliott is ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at email@example.com, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.