Big Airlines, Tiny Watchdog

Do you remember when computer failures forced the Delta subsidiary Comair to cancel 1,100 flights and pretty much shut down operations?

If you were one of the 1,000 people stuck in the Cincinnati airport overnight on Christmas Eve 2004, or one of the 290,000 passengers whose travel was disrupted in some way, you probably remember.

If you’re Comair, you might forget. A $75,000 fine just doesn’t stick in the corporate memory all that well, especially if you don’t have to pay it.

Certainly Comair has taken steps to avoid a repeat of the computer meltdown, which was disastrous for its business. The company paid out a lot of vouchers and frequent-flier miles, too, though you really couldn’t pay me enough of either to make it worth missing the holidays with my family.

And is a $75,000 fine – which will be forgiven if the company behaves better – enough to remind Comair not to lie to its passengers? Because that’s what it did, in many cases, blaming a winter storm so that it wouldn’t have to pay for hotels and meals for all its stranded passengers.

Marilyn Adams at USA Today cites this case in a story about the Department of Transportation’s meager enforcement efforts. She wrote

This year, the DOT’s enforcement office has closed just 25 consumer protection investigations with so-called consent orders, or settlement agreements, with the violators. … Meanwhile, the DOT through September has logged 8,612 passenger complaints.

That is not a great ratio. But then the story reports that the department’s enforcement office has a full-time staff of 31, down from 41 in 2004.


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