This year, the government is on track to issue the lowest number of airline fines in history. Federal regulators insist they’re just doing their job and that the numbers represent an ebb in airline violations. But consumer advocates say it’s nothing short of a dereliction of duty.

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Transportation Department (DOT), which enforces federal consumer protection regulations, has issued seven aviation enforcement orders totaling $2.2 million in civil penalties in 2019. The previous low for enforcement actions, set in 2000, was nine. The DOT set a decade low for the dollar amount of fines last year, when it issued 16 enforcement orders totaling just $1.8 million in fines.

“Protecting consumers often involves various activities in addition to taking enforcement action,” says Blane Workie, DOT assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement and proceedings. Those activities include issuing guidance documents regarding consumer protection or civil rights rules or statutes. She points out that the DOT also issues a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report that contains information on the quality of services provided by airlines and ranks the carriers accordingly.

In other words, enforcement actions tell part of the story.

But for some consumer advocates, the latest numbers do, indeed, tell a full story. DOT fines are important, in part, because federal preemption protects airlines from enforcement actions by individual states. Aviation Consumer Protection is often passengers’ first, last and only hope for resolving problems.

“It’s incredibly disheartening that the DOT seems to be falling down on the job when it comes to enforcement,” says John Breyault, a vice president at the National Consumers League. “Fliers must depend on the DOT to protect them because the DOT is the only cop on the beat when it comes to consumer protection in the airline marketplace.”

At the same time, passengers say air travel is as painful as ever. I know because as a consumer advocate who specializes in travel complaints, I’ve never been busier.

“Passengers just want to get from place to place without major interruption, be treated well and have their luggage show up when and where they do,” says Mike Maughan, head of global insights for Qualtrics, an experience-management company that conducts consumer satisfaction research.

Among this year’s enforcement actions:

• American Airlines was fined $1 million for violations of the tarmac delay rule from 2015 to 2017. Airlines aren’t allowed to keep passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours for domestic flights or more than four hours for international flights without giving them an opportunity to deplane. One domestic flight, diverted to Austin, sat on the tarmac for 4 hours and 2 minutes before American let passengers off the plane. All told, there were 13 violations of the tarmac rule, which works out to $76,923 per violation. The DOT credited American $450,000 of the $1 million for compensation already provided to passengers on the affected flights.

•Delta Air Lines was fined $750,000, also for tarmac violations, including for delayed flights in Atlanta in 2017 and Kansas City in 2018. Delta experienced a gate-management system outage at its Atlanta hub that affected 129 mainline flights. Because departing flights could not taxi off gates, arriving flights had to wait on taxiways. Delta paid $300,000 of the assessed penalty. DOT credited the balance to the airline for compensation already paid to passengers.

Do more fines mean better airline service? Not necessarily, DOT says. “DOT has not seen a clear correlation between the number or amount of enforcement fines in a given year and the number of consumer complaints we receive,” Workie says.

For example, in 2016, Aviation Consumer Protection’s enforcement office recorded 28 fines and 17,908 consumer complaints; in 2017, 19 fines and 18,148 complaints; in 2018, 17 fines and 15,541 complaints; and this year, so far, the seven fines and 13,957 complaints.

Agency watchers agree there’s a bigger picture. Not only have fines nosedived in 2019, but the government has all but abandoned its mission of protecting consumers, according to Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, a Washington passenger advocacy group.

“The drop in airline fines goes along with the DOT’s lack of action on legislated consumer protections,” he says. “DOT’s intentionally not enforcing current consumer protections and is not implementing congressionally mandated consumer protections.”

Among the DOT’s failures: It has not written a much-needed regulation, mandated by Congress, requiring that airlines seat families with young children together without charging them extra. It also has not produced a regulation requiring airlines to refund bag fees when luggage arrives at least 12 hours late. And it has barred consumer representatives from witnessing seat-evacuation tests now underway.

“Airlines are making more money than ever,” Leocha says. “They can afford to be more consumer-friendly. However, DOT is not mandating such actions.”

For air travelers, the takeaway is obvious: Airlines have less to fear from regulators than perhaps ever. While that might not necessarily result in a bad trip, you should still follow your flight attendant’s advice: Fasten your seat belt. Things could get a little bumpy next year.

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