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DOT Secretary LaHood to step down after controversial term for aviation

US secretary of transportation Ray LaHood has announced that he will not serve a second term in the cabinet level position, leaving behind a legacy of championing consumer rights and passenger safety with a new wave of sometimes controversial regulatory requirements.

In his four-year term leading the Department of Transportation (DOT), the former Republican congressman from Illinois introduced sweeping reforms aimed at enhancing the rights of airline passengers against indefinite tarmac delays and hidden airline fees, as well as improving safety standards for crew rest.

"As I look back on the past four years, I am proud of what we have accomplished in so many important areas," LaHood wrote in a letter to DOT employees, and he cited "strengthened consumer protections" against airlines as an example.

Not surprisingly, some in the aviation industry opposed several of LaHood's reforms for adding to the sector's already significant regulatory burden and exposing airlines to unprecedented civil penalties for violations of dozens of new operating and marketing rules.

"While consumer advocates have loved LaHood, the industry loathed him," says Mike Miller, a Florida-based consultant and vice president of the American Aviation Institute (AAI). "He has implemented the most over-reaching rules for fares and fare monitoring by anybody since deregulation. He has in many ways put the government back into the fare (-setting) process."

Miller's AAI has particularly opposed the rulemakings because of what they considered a lack of rigorous cost-benefit analysis by the DOT.

New rules adopted under LaHood's watch include forcing airlines to hold an airline reservation for 24h, time limits for tarmac delays, restrictions on how carriers advertise air fares and steep fines for any violations.

In the absence of a nominee to succeed LaHood, it remains unclear how his reform-oriented agenda may be affected in the second term of the Obama Administration. A third round of "enhanced airline passenger protections" is already proposed, with new rules requiring travel agents to adopt a set of minimum customer service standards and be more transparent about preferential pricing on fares and ancillary fees received from airlines.

How those policies are shaped may depend on who President Obama nominates to replace LaHood, who will remain in office until his successor is selected. There appears to be no consensus for a likely successor, but names widely mentioned as candidates include Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Jim Oberstar, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota and chair of the House transportation and infrastructure committee.

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