Four years ago in this space we greeted the news
of Ray LaHood's nomination as transportation secretary with some puzzlement and, truth be told, some disappointment.
We had been hoping for a Transportation Department (DOT) secretary with star power and instead were introduced to a seven-term Republican congressman from Peoria, Ill., who had no significant experience with transportation issues. But it turns out that Obama chose the man, not the resume, and he chose well.
We don't agree with every decision that has come out of the DOT over the last four years, but if it was LaHood's job to foster improved safety and efficiency for U.S. transportation systems, look out for consumers and avoid embarrassing or upstaging his boss, while leaving his department better off than he found it, then he did exactly what a Cabinet secretary is supposed to do.
For the DOT's highway, rail and transit units, it helped that the Obama administration made a commitment to high-speed rail and to a stimulus package that included significant spending on transportation infrastructure.
Those initiatives funneled a lot of money through the DOT, and under LaHood's leadership those programs were managed well.
The secretary also carried out a much-needed crusade against distracted driving, raising awareness of the dangers of cellphone use by motorists and the absolute folly of driving while texting.
For commercial aviation, the Obama administration did not have a grand strategy of policy reform. It never picked up where the previous administration had left off in trying to rationalize the myriad federal taxes that apply to air travel and that are earmarked for air traffic control operations and modernization. That politically divisive battle remains to be fought.
And it has been just as generous with grants of antitrust immunity to international airline alliances as its predecessors and just as willing to allow airlines to buy and sell access to the public airspace, i.e., takeoff and landing slots, as if slots were private property.
The Obama DOT saved all its reformist zeal for the arena of airline consumer protection.
Faced with continued complaints from tarmac hostages and a drumbeat of discontent on Capitol Hill, the DOT under LaHood adopted the tarmac delay rule and then broadened the rule to include international flights and foreign airlines, a reform that has thankfully made those horror stories of 10-hour strandings pretty much a thing of the past.
The DOT also updated and strengthened numerous other consumer rules for airline passengers regarding denied boarding, access for the disabled and various notices and disclosures about fees and contracts of carriage.
A uniform pricing rule now requires all travel sellers to incorporate all taxes and mandatory fees into all ads, fare quotes and Internet displays.
We think the pricing rule was an overreach, and we believe some of the DOT's other reforms were ill-advised, but those disagreements aside, we salute this administration for trying to do more, and accomplishing more, for airline consumers than any of its recent predecessors.
But we remain concerned that the DOT's rule-writing bureaucracy, emboldened by these accomplishments, is seriously entertaining even more intrusive rules, such as requiring travel agents to disclose details of their distribution agreements with airlines and GDSs.
Perhaps a challenge for LaHood's successor will be reining in the regulators.