Obama Administration Gets Tough on Airlines

The federal government has taken a much more active role under President Obama in regulating the airlines and imposing fines for both consumer and safety violations.

The get-tough approach has led to millions of extra dollars in sanctions and more pro-passenger rules, such as recent limits on how long a plane can wait on the tarmac for takeoff.

These changes are in stark contrast, aviation experts say, to the Bush years, when regulators essentially let the airlines police themselves.

"The previous administration, after 9/11, pretty much called the watchdogs off in terms of enforcement actions or things that would cost the industry any money at all," said L. Nick Lacey, the former director of flight standards for the FAA and now chief operating officer of aviation consulting firm Morten Beyer & Agnew. "Either said or unsaid that was the operating tone in the field. Now, under this administration, they seem to be more actively looking and willing to bring about civil penalties."

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Take the Department of Transportation, which oversees airline pricing, advertising, delays on the tarmac and involuntary bumping. In 2009, after Obama had appointed Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary, the DOT levied $2.6 million in fines again the airlines. That's up from $1.2 million during the Bush administration in 2008 and $1.4 million in 2007, according to data requested by ABC News from the DOT.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees safety, also saw a spike in penalties during the first year under the leadership of Obama appointee Randy Babbitt. In 2009, the FAA fined the airlines $14.7 million, up from $7.6 million in 2008 and $6.1 million the year before, according to ABC News calculations of FAA data.

"Clearly we have an administration now which believes in more government intervention on behalf of consumers and other constituencies," said Brian F. Havel, a law professor and director of the International Aviation Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago. "I think the philosophy of the administration clearly is to be more interventionist."

DOT's New Tarmac Delay Rules

Just last week, the DOT fined Southwest Airlines $200,000 for bumping passengers from oversold flights without promptly paying them or providing written notices of their rights. Last year, Southwest bumped 13,113 passengers -- 80 percent more than the next closest carrier. (Southwest, however, did carry the most passengers domestically. Passengers had higher odds of being bumped on other airlines, with American Eagle being the worst.)

But Havel and other aviation experts say the real sign of change came with the DOT's recent tarmac delay rules. For years, passenger-rights groups have been fighting for a so-called Passengers' Bill of Rights, after a handful of flight-delay incidents that can only be described as horrific. The most famous was on Valentine's Day 2007, when JetBlue kept some passengers trapped in planes on the ground for more than 10 hours during a snowstorm.

Congress has considered several passenger provisions but never passed any real protections into law.

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