DOT wants to weaken its own power to penalize airlines over consumer complaintsJuly 6, 2020
With enforcement against airlines for consumer violations already falling sharply, the Department of Transportation is pushing for a rule change that consumer groups and some lawmakers say would serve no other purpose than further protecting airlines from civil fines.
The proposed change, announced in February, would require the DOT to use a more rigid definition of “unfair and deceptive practices” when investigating consumer complaints against airlines. The rule would also allow airlines to call for additional hearings when defending complaints or when facing future regulations.
Under Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the agency already is taking a more hands-off approach to complaints by air travelers, with enforcement actions on a sharp downward trend. In 2019, the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division issued eight enforcement orders against airlines, a record low and half as many as it issued the previous year, an agency database shows. The previous record low was nine enforcement orders, set in 2000, according to The Washington Post.
This year has also seen few cases, with three civil penalties imposed on airlines so far in 2020 totalling $850,000.
The DOT acknowledges in its proposal that it could be “performing fewer enforcement and rulemaking actions” under the rule. The agency credits Airlines for America, the lobbying organization that represents the nation’s major airlines, for suggesting the change. The industry group had complained that it had been subject to aggressive regulatory activity over the years, even for “minor infractions, inadvertent errors, or isolated incidents,” according to the DOT’s summary of the request.
“The value of this proposal is that DOT will need to explain…the reasons why it believes a practice is ‘unfair’ or ‘deceptive,'” Airlines for America said in a statement to FairWarning.
Few outside the industry would argue that airlines are being burdened by excessive regulations, especially with the free-for-all that has characterized air travel during the Covid-19 crisis.
In a June 10 letter to Chao blasting the proposal, Senators Edward Markey, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin and Richard Blumenthal, all Democrats, cited the recent decline in enforcement and thousands of consumer complaints since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many about airlines’ refusal to pay refunds.
“Given these unprecedented and disturbing trends, it is difficult to understand how DOT can justify making it harder to protect consumers at this time,” the letter said.
The lawmakers also cited the agency’s failure to meet congressional directives in 2016 and 2018 to adopt new protections for airline workers and air travelers, including requirements to pay refund fees for delayed baggage and establish a minimum seat width. DOT has said it is still studying the issues.
DOT has not responded to the letter. But in a statement to FairWarning, it said the proposal “is intended to increase…