A plane takes off from Reagan National Airport on April 20, 2011, in Alexandria, Va. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The return of divided government has some passengers’ rights advocates hoping that federal transportation officials will take a more aggressive posture on policing the airlines.

Some advocates say they have seen a relaxation of enforcement actions against the industry since 2016 that reflects the Trump administration’s deregulatory stance.

“We hope that with the new Congress going forward, we may be able to require more of the department,” said Andrew Appelbaum, a staff attorney at FlyersRights.org. “The Department of Transportation [DOT] is really the only remedy passengers have.”

His group has pressed the department and the Federal Aviation Administration on a host of consumer-related air travel issues, such as setting minimum seating standards to ease cabin crowding. The advocacy group also has sought to discover, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), exactly how the federal government has responded to complaints of mistreatment filed against the airlines.

The government can levy fines as part of its enforcement action, but these have dwindled, advocates say. A report last week by Travelers United says the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division was on a pace to issue the lowest number of fines in a decade: only 16 consent orders totaling $1.8 million in 2018, compared with $3.1 million in 2017. The site pointed out that the department issued more than twice that amount in 2016.

“The DOT has turned its back on complaints that most Americans find meritorious,” Ben Edelman, a Harvard Business School professor and aviation-rights activist, was quoted as saying.

Airlines for America (A4A), the industry’s advocacy group, says that counting the number of enforcement actions and fines doesn’t capture the degree to which airlines are monitored.

Alison McAfee, an A4A spokeswoman, said George Mason University’s Mercatus Center has ranked airlines as the sixth most federally regulated industry in the United States, with 13,000 regulations across 20 agencies.

But Appelbaum said the department has a history of leniency toward the airlines, even in egregious cases such as when a United Airlines passenger was forcibly dragged off a plane in April 2017.

“We’ve concluded that the Department of Transportation has declined to enforce regulations and institute penalties with violations,” Appelbaum said.

In the United case, the department found that the airline had failed to provide the correct amount of financial compensation to one of the five passengers bumped that day but later paid the correct amount, according to a letter to the airline from the DOT’s general counsel.

The department also found that the airline failed to give the proper written notice of rights to the passenger forcibly dragged off the plane — but the agency said that was because the passenger left the airport immediately to seek medical treatment for injuries he suffered when security officers pulled him off the plane. The May 12, 2017, letter says the agency otherwise found no reason to take enforcement action.

Of course, the department is not in a very good position to be doing much of anything at the moment because of the government shutdown. Emails seeking comment from the DOT were returned with notices saying press office employees were off duty. In the past, however, the department has said that the agency looks into every complaint with care and takes action where the complaints have merit.

Passengers'-rights groups say that even in the best of times, the department’s fines have been little more than flea bites compared with the airlines’ financial might. U.S. carriers earned net profits of $3.8 billion in just the third quarter of 2018, compared with $3.7 billion in the same period of 2017, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics said.

“The fine amounts are not a sufficient disciplinary measure,” Appelbaum said. “And in almost every case, the department will only fine half the stated amount.”

If anything, the airlines say the federal government should ease up, especially in light of the way the industry has opened the skies to record numbers of travelers since its deregulation. Over the recent winter holiday season, an estimated 45.7 million people flew with U.S. carriers, whose fares were 42 percent cheaper than they were in 1980, McAfee said. She said intense competition between the airlines has forced them to take steps to make sure address consumers' concerns.

“We need smarter regulations and we need fewer efforts from Washington to dictate how airlines do business,” McAffee said in an email. “Importantly, over the coming years, we must continue to protect our customers from misguided attempts to regulate pricing and services across the industry that could threaten to unravel the huge consumer benefits we’ve worked so hard to deliver post-regulation.”

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