Travelers fighting an airline over some injustice may find a new partner riding shotgun: Uncle Sam.
Often dismissed as a toothless watchdog by aviation consumer advocates, the Department of Transportation has shown renewed vigor in its role policing bad behavior by air carriers.
The DOT turned heads last year by aggressively investigating the stranding of 47 Continental Express passengers for six hours on the tarmac of the Rochester, Minn., airport after midnight.
The agency fined Continental Airlines and the plane's operator, ExpressJet Airlines, a total of $100,000. Mesaba Airlines, whose employees refused to open the terminal for exhausted travelers, got slapped with a $75,000 fine.
Then last month, the DOT issued a rule prohibiting airlines from leaving passengers aboard a domestic flight on the tarmac for more than three hours. The penalty is no chump change: $27,500 per passenger. This after years of failed efforts by consumer activists to push a three-hour rule through Congress.
"We want to ensure that consumers are protected against unfair and deceptive practices," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a prepared statement. "We expect the airlines to respect the rights of travelers."
Even before the Mess in Minnesota, the department stepped up investigations into airlines for all kinds of consumer abuses. Some of the industry's biggest names got caught and paid fines.
Delta Air Lines, the world's biggest carrier, agreed in July to a $375,000 penalty for failing to properly compensate passengers involuntarily bumped off flights. The next month, United was fined $75,000 for failing to disclose taxes and fees on fares advertised on its Web site.
The DOT also put in new rules against chronically delayed flights, defined as arriving more than 30 minutes late for more than half the time it flies within a month. Airlines operating a flight with such pathetic regularity for four straight months will face sanctions.
Finally, the agency revamped its consumer Web site, airconsumer.dot.gov. The site provides a direct link to the DOT's Web form for filing complaints against airlines, as well as links to airline performance statistics from its monthly reports.
What's behind the renewed interest in holding airlines' feet to the fire? Likely a change in the White House and DOT leadership.
"For whatever reason, Ray LaHood found religion," said Chris Elliott, reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler magazine and travel columnist. "He wants to be known as the DOT secretary who stood up for the traveler, the little guy."
Like other travel experts, Elliott is hopeful, though not convinced, that the government has embraced the job of aggressive activist for air travelers.
One yardstick for measuring the DOT's commitment is the number of consent orders, essentially plea bargains with airlines accused of violations. The 30 orders signed in 2009 was about the same number settled in four of the past five years and well below the 2004 peak of 38. Carriers pay only half the fine if they keep their noses clean.
The agency's Aviation Consumer Protection Division has 41 staffers. Half handle legal matters and the rest deal with 6,000 to 20,000 consumer complaints a year. A warning: The DOT will actively pursue only charges of civil rights violations (such as failing to accommodate disabled travelers) and violating government regulations (such as not fairly compensating customers for bumping them off flights or losing their luggage).
If your flight is canceled or an airline employee treats you badly, the agency will forward your complaint to the airline. You are, however, entitled to "substantive response" that addresses your specific grievance within 60 days.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.