WASHINGTON -- Airline passenger complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation are rolling in by the thousands this year, but fliers waiting for government help may be disappointed.
This year, the DOT's enforcement office has closed just 25 consumer protection investigations with so-called consent orders, or settlement agreements, with the violators. As part of those orders, DOT has assessed $1.15 million in fines against airlines and other aviation-related firms for a variety of violations, including deceptive practices and failing to properly accommodate disabled passengers on planes.
Meanwhile, the DOT through September has logged 8,612 passenger complaints, up 70% for the same period last year. Those complaints — about delayed and canceled flights, lost luggage, bad customer service, refunds never made and other problems — doubled during the heavy travel months of July and August from a year earlier.
Critics, including past DOT officials, say the department's consumer protection enforcement is simply not good enough. The DOT should be more aggressive as a consumer watchdog, taking up more complaints and levying steeper fines on airlines, they say.
"The passenger should be the No. 1 priority," says former DOT inspector general Ken Mead, now special counsel at a Washington, D.C., law firm. "This office needs to be considerably more aggressive in the consumer-protection area."
DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel testified before Congress in April that the DOT "needs to improve its oversight of consumer protection laws."
'Budgetary buzz saw'
The department's enforcement office has a full-time staff of 31, down from 41 in 2004. That year, the agency closed 40 consumer complaint cases.
Former Transportation secretary Norman Mineta, the only Democrat in President Bush's Cabinet before stepping down in July 2006, recalls that funding and staffing for the enforcement office was a sore point.
"We ran into a budgetary buzz saw," Mineta, vice chairman of public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, said in a recent interview.
Recognizing that DOT staffing for consumer protection has been declining and that criticism of the agency has been rising, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who took office in October 2006, has asked the DOT's general counsel for recommendations next month on whether the enforcement office should receive more funding and staff.
The debate about DOT consumer protection comes against a backdrop of highly publicized service meltdowns, including the Valentine's Day JetBlue Airways jblu strandings at New York's John F. Kennedy airport. In March, US Airways' lcc check-in kiosks crashed after a systems merger, prompting extraordinary check-in lines and flight delays across the USA.
Last summer was the worst in 13 years of record-keeping for flight delays. Now, the DOT is threatening to cut flight schedules at one or more of the nation's most-congested airports and fine airlines that operate chronically late flights.
One high-profile case the DOT closed this year involved Delta Air Lines' dal regional-airline subsidiary Comair. It stranded thousands of passengers on Christmas Eve 2004 when its crew-scheduling computer system crashed during a blizzard. About 290,000 travelers nationwide were affected, including 1,000 stuck overnight at the Cincinnati airport. Comair told some fliers the cancellations were because of the weather, not computer problems. Airlines aren't legally required to provide free hotel rooms and meal vouchers when bad weather disrupts flights.
Fines for Comair, JetBlue
Admitting no wrongdoing, Comair agreed to $75,000 in fines. Under the deal, it won't have to pay even that if it doesn't repeat its mistakes.
Another closed case this year involved JetBlue's failure to provide flights' on-time performance to callers who asked reservations agents for the information. The enforcement office concluded JetBlue engaged in an unfair and deceptive practice and assessed JetBlue a $30,000 fine.
Seventeen of the 25 closed cases this year involved foreign carriers, very small U.S. carriers or obscure tour operators. For all of 2006, the DOT closed 33 enforcement cases with settlement agreements and assessed $2.2 million in fines.
DOT spokesman Brian Turmail defends the agency's record on fines. He says the department "is not in the revenue-making business. We're in the business of getting airlines to correct their behavior."
He says fines serve as a "fiscal tool" to change airlines' actions and make them invest in better service. "We have found it to be incredibly effective."
Since May, the DOT's enforcement office has been investigating airlines that operate flights that are almost always late. It issued letters to 20 carriers threatening to fine them $25,000 per flight if they continued to operate flights that arrived late more than 70% of the time. Although the DOT has not announced any fines, Turmail says the investigation already has helped because the number of chronically late flights flown by those airlines dropped 30% from the first quarter to the second quarter of this year.
But critics say the agency is ineffective. "It's a very weak system," says Paul Hudson, head of advocacy group Aviation Consumer Action Project. "The airlines have been free to do whatever they want."
California real estate broker Kate Hanni, founder of a grass-roots advocacy group called Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, calls the DOT's record "pitiful." She formed the group after being stranded on an American Airlines flight for eight hours last December.
"We need a wholesale overhaul," she says.