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Who should benefit when airlines are penalized?

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Although the U.S. Department of Transportation fined seven airlines a total of $1.7 million last year for violating its controversial tarmac-delay rule, most of it went straight to the U.S. Treasury. Why isn’t the money awarded to the passengers who sat on planes for hours before taking off?

That’s a question passengers like Christy Wood often ask me. Although she’s never been stuck on a parked plane, it surprised her to learn airlines face civil penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger for each violation. That’s a tidy sum that could help make a planeload of passengers a little happier.

“I don’t understand why the government gets to collect that money,” says Wood, who works for the state of Oregon. “We, the passengers, are the ones suffering — why shouldn’t the airline pay that $27,500 to each passenger on that flight?”

The tarmac-delay rules set time limits for domestic and international flights waiting for clearance to take off. Carriers have to provide adequate food and water after two hours, as well as working lavatories and any medical treatment necessary. The airline industry argued that the rules, adopted in 2009 and 2011, would encourage airlines to cancel flights, but so far there’s little evidence the regulations have triggered the widespread cancellations predicted by the industry.

Although the U.S. Department of Transportation fined seven airlines a total of $1.7 million last year for violating its controversial tarmac-delay rule, most of it went straight to the U.S. Treasury. Why isn’t the money awarded to the passengers who sat on planes for hours before taking off?

That’s a question passengers like Christy Wood often ask me. Although she’s never been stuck on a parked plane, it surprised her to learn airlines face civil penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger for each violation. That’s a tidy sum that could help make a planeload of passengers a little happier.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. E-mail him at [email protected] View Archive

“I don’t understand why the government gets to collect that money,” says Wood, who works for the state of Oregon. “We, the passengers, are the ones suffering — why shouldn’t the airline pay that $27,500 to each passenger on that flight?”

The tarmac-delay rules set time limits for domestic and international flights waiting for clearance to take off. Carriers have to provide adequate food and water after two hours, as well as working lavatories and any medical treatment necessary. The airline industry argued that the rules, adopted in 2009 and 2011, would encourage airlines to cancel flights, but so far there’s little evidence the regulations have triggered the widespread cancellations predicted by the industry.

Wood’s question is a charged one for inconvenienced passengers. When something goes wrong, why aren’t travelers the beneficiaries of the money collected?

The answer is fascinating and, at the same time, frustrating. Since the tarmac-delay regulations became effective, the DOT has issued cease-and-desist orders assessing civil penalties in 15 cases involving 43 flights for violations of the tarmac-delay rule. Total civil penalties so far: $3,550,000.

That averages $82,558 per flight. Assuming each flight had 200 passengers, that works out to $412 per passenger — far from the maximum the DOT could fine, but not a bad way to say “I’m sorry.”

Advocates say that no matter who gets the money, the punishment is not much of a deterrent.

“The fines are merely a slap on the wrist to airlines and are often negotiated down significantly,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which advocates for frequent air travelers and their employers. “Now that the airline industry has consolidated through mergers to three mega-network airlines, disregard for consumers’ interests will likely only increase.”

Kendall Creighton, a spokeswoman for FlyersRights, one of the groups that pushed for the creation of the new tarmac-delay laws, says the problem is simple. “The government is too close with the airlines and too close with the airports,” she says. “DOT is adverse to cracking down on the industry and paying out to the affected passengers.”

The law requires the money collected from the airlines to be paid to the U.S. Treasury. There is nothing in the regulation that allows payment of civil penalties to go to affected consumers. But that doesn’t necessarily mean consumers are left uncompensated.

More… http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/who-should-benefit-when-airlines-are-penalized/2014/11/20/590bcde6-6eab-11e4-893f-86bd390a3340_story.html

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