Airlines and travel agencies have been paying fewer fines for violating consumer protection rules in the last few years as flier complaints have declined.
But critics fear the reduction in civil penalties signals an unwillingness by the Trump administration to crack down on rule-breakers in the industry.
In the first three years of the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation levied 42 civil penalties against airlines and travel agencies for violating consumer protection rules, compared with 65 fines imposed during the final three years of the Obama administration. Such violations include failing to let stranded passengers off a delayed flight or failing to quickly return wheelchairs to passengers when a plane lands, among others.
The 65 penalties imposed during the last three years of the Obama administration add up to about $11.5 million in fines, compared with about $7.5 million in penalties assessed during the first three years of the Trump administration, according to federal records. The average penalty imposed during both three-year periods was roughly the same -- about $178,000.
The fines are prompted either by complaints from passengers to the Department of Transportation or a review of airline records by regulators.
In an emailed statement, the Aviation Enforcement Office of the Department of Transportation said it has not changed its directive to issue penalties against airlines that violate federal regulators.
"The Aviation Enforcement Office pursues enforcement action when the facts merit such action, so the number of consent orders and amounts of civil penalties fluctuates from year to year," the department said.
The department defended itself, saying the agency last year began to adopt several new consumer protection rules, including how passengers can travel with service animals, making lavatories in cabins more accessible and allowing airlines to pay passengers electronically after they are bumped from a booked seat.
It is possible that airlines have been fined less often in recent years because the nation's carriers have had time to adjust to dozens of new consumer regulations adopted early in the Obama administration, said Seth Kaplan, an airline analyst and former managing partner of the trade publication Airline Weekly. Industry experts say the Obama administration adopted more than 30 new consumer protection regulations from 2009 to 2011.
"It could be attributed to operational improvements by airlines," he said but added that it is also possible that the number of penalties simply fluctuate over time for other unknown reasons.