The Transportation Department’s latest high-profile fine goes against Comair for violating denied-boarding rules. It’s a big ticket: $275,000, which, while significantly less than the record fine against Spirit Airlines late last year, could be the largest enforcement action for bad bumping practices.

According to the government, an investigation of Comair revealed numerous cases in which the airline failed to solicit volunteers to leave overbooked flights and provide passengers with the appropriate denied boarding compensation.

The DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office also found that Comair had filed inaccurate reports with DOT on the number of passengers involuntarily denied boarding.

Bad Comair!

Comair, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, says it uses the software, hardware, and procedures of its parent company for handling oversale situations and denied boarding compensation. It blamed the problem on the program, according to documents filed with DOT.

But that’s not the real problem. The trouble may be that the government is starting to go soft on airlines, despite this fine.

Last year, the department assessed $2.5 million in fines and promised to take a tough stand against airlines that violated federal consumer protection rules.

Let’s look at the major enforcement actions this year:

DOT Fines Comair for Violations of Denied Boarding Compensation Rules $275,000

DOT Fines Two Airlines for Violating Price Advertising Rules $60,000

DOT Fines Continental for Incomplete Disability Complaint Reports $100,000

DOT Fines Southwest for Violations of Denied Boarding Compensation Rules $200,000

DOT Fines US Airways for Violation of Price Advertising Rules $40,000

DOT Fines United for Violations of Price Advertising Rules $30,000

That’s $705,000, which is less than one-third of 2009′s total enforcement actions.

What’s happening here? Is DOT going soft on the industry?

Not necessarily. These are just the major actions that warranted an announcement. There are lesser tickets, such as the $100,000 fine against Falcon Air, that aren’t part of the total.

I don’t have complete records on these minor consent orders, but based on what I have, I can say they don’t add up to much: $20,000 here, $30,000 there.

It appears the government has some catching up to do.

In order for the DOT’s rhetoric to be credible, it needs to put some big numbers on the board for 2010. No two ways about it.

(Photo: green kozi/Flickr Creative Commons)