Airlines are paying fewer fines. Is the government letting them off the hook?
Airlines and travel agencies have been paying fewer fines for violating consumer protection rules in the last few years as flier complaints have declined.
But critics fear the reduction in civil penalties signals an unwillingness by the Trump administration to crack down on rule breakers in the industry.
In the first three years of the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation levied 42 civil penalties against airlines and travel agencies for violating consumer protection rules, compared with 65 fines imposed during the final three years of the Obama administration. Such violations include failing to let stranded passengers off a delayed flight or failing to quickly return wheelchairs to passengers when a plane lands.
The 65 penalties imposed during the last three years of the Obama administration add up to about $11.5 million in fines, compared with about $7.5 million in penalties assessed during the first three years of the Trump administration, according to federal records. The average penalty imposed during both three-year periods was roughly the same — about $178,000.
The fines are prompted either by complaints from passengers to the Department of Transportation or a review of airline records by regulators.
In an emailed statement, the Aviation Enforcement Office of the Department of Transportation said it has not changed its directive to issue penalties against airlines that violate federal regulators.
“The Aviation Enforcement Office pursues enforcement action when the facts merit such action, so the number of consent orders and amounts of civil penalties fluctuates from year to year,” the department said.
The department defended itself, saying the agency last year began to adopt several new consumer protection rules, including how passengers can travel with service animals, making lavatories in cabins more accessible and allowing airlines to pay passengers electronically after they are bumped from a booked seat.
It is possible that airlines have been fined less often in recent years because the nation’s carriers have had time to adjust to dozens of new consumer regulations adopted early in the Obama administration, said Seth Kaplan, an airline analyst and former managing partner of the trade publication Airline Weekly. Industry experts say the Obama administration adopted more than 30 new consumer protection regulations from 2009 to 2011.
“It could be attributed to operational improvements by airlines,” he said but added that it is also possible that the number of penalties simply fluctuates over time for other unknown reasons.
When asked to respond, Airlines for America, a trade group for the nation’s airlines, issued a statement saying, “U.S. airlines all meet or exceed Department of Transportation standards and remain committed to continuing to improve compliance with all DOT regulations.”
A spokeswoman declined to elaborate.
There is evidence that passengers are happier with the service that airlines are providing.
The most recent survey by J.D. Power found that the airlines satisfaction score hit a record high in 2019. The study, which was based on responses from nearly 6,000 passengers who flew on a major North American airline, said the satisfaction score rose 11 points to 773 on a 1,000-point scale.
Meanwhile, the rate of passenger complaints filed against airlines with the Department of Transportation has been dropping steadily, declining 32% over the last three years.
But passenger rights advocates say the drop in penalties imposed against airlines reflects leniency by the Trump administration.
Paul Hudson, a founder of Flyersrights.org and a longtime member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Rulemaking Advisory Committee, said he had been critical of regulators under President Obama but feels that the regulators under President Trump have been even more complaisant toward enforcing consumer rights regulations.
“I’m afraid we’ve gone from bad to worse,” he said.
Hudson said he filed a request in 2017 under the Freedom of Information Act for documents to see how often and why aviation regulators have declined to impose civil penalties against an airline that was accused of violating aviation rules. He said the Department of Transportation has yet to reply to that request.
A representative for the agency did not respond to requests to comment on Hudson’s request for public records.
Charles Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, agreed with Hudson, saying the Trump administration has done less to regulate airlines through fines than the previous administration. But he said that the penalties imposed by both administrations have been too small to force airlines to change the way they do business.
“If we just look strictly at the amount of money, it’s just dropping down to virtually nothing,” he said. “They are getting away with anything they want to get away with.”
Airlines in North American were expected to pocket $16.4 billion in profits in 2018, up from $15.6 billion in 2017, according to a recent forecast by the International Air Transport Assn., a trade group for the world’s airlines.
Leocha said that the $3.2 million in fines levied against all U.S. airlines in 2017 is the equivalent of imposing a $2.05 fine on the average American household with an income of $80,000.
“In terms of economic damage, they provide virtually no damage,” he said.
Among the most significant regulations adopted under the Obama administration was the so-called tarmac delay rule, which requires airlines to give passengers the option to get off a plane if a domestic flight is delayed on an airport tarmac for three hours or more. The rule kicks in after four hours for an international flight. The 2010 law also required airlines to provide food and water to passengers on domestic flights delayed at least two hours.
Airlines that fail to comply could be fined up to $27,500 per passenger.
Three of the largest civil penalties imposed on airlines in the last six years were for violations of the tarmac delay rule. Frontier Airlines was assessed $1.5 million in penalties in 2017. American Airlines was fined $1.6 million in 2016 and $1 million in 2019 for multiple violations of the tarmac delay rule.
But the largest civil penalty levied against an airline in the last six years for a violation of consumer protection laws was a $2-million fine against United Airlines in 2016 for failing to assist disabled passengers in getting on and off planes. The carrier was hit with an additional $750,000 penalty for stranding passengers on flights that were delayed for more than three hours.
The fine was prompted, in part, by the complaint of a passenger with cerebral palsy who was forced to crawl out of a United jetliner because airline crew failed to provide him with a special wheelchair that he requested. The airline publicly apologized to the flier and promised to invest in new technology to more quickly provide passengers wheelchairs on planes and in terminals.
Responding to complaints from passengers with disabilities, federal lawmakers adopted legislation last year that allowed regulators to triple the fines to a maximum of about $1,000 against airlines that damage a wheelchair or other mobility aid.
But an investigation by Bloomberg found that federal regulators have yet to impose such a fine since the law was adopted even though airlines have been losing or damaging about 1,000 wheelchairs a month.
The Department of Transportation responded to Bloomberg by issuing a statement saying it takes action “where a number of complaints evidence a pattern or practice of violations, or one or a few complaints evidence particularly egregious conduct on the part of a carrier.”