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Flier protections a big part of Ray LaHood's legacy

Image: Ray LaHood
Ray LaHood, pictured in 2011, announced on Tuesday that he will step down as the head of the Department of Transportation.Larry Downing / Reuters file

How often do you think about Ray LaHood when you fly? For most fliers, the answer is probably, "never" – or "Ray La-Who?"

But when a storm keeps a  plane grounded on the tarmac, an airline loses luggage or fees complicate airfare shopping, it's the rules put in place under the LaHood-led Department of Transportation that help keep travelers sane.

Secretary LaHood announced Tuesday he will leave his post – a move that made some passenger rights advocates wistful.

“There’s actually no doubt about it, he was by far the most passenger-friendly and consumer-friendly Secretary of Transportation that we’ve ever had,” said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance.

“He had a whole series of consumer-friendly rule makings that really changed the landscape of flying for the public.”

LaHood will perhaps be most remembered for implementing the tarmac delay rule, which took effect in the spring of 2010 and threatened airlines with huge fines if they allowed a flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without giving passengers the option of deplaning. The rule aims to cut down on nightmare scenarios involving passengers stuck inside a grounded plane, with little food or water and with malfunctioning lavatories.

It appears to be working. There were 86 tarmac delays of three hours or more in 2011, the last full year for which DOT statistics are available, or about one-tenth of such incidents reported in 2009.

Other passenger protections passed during LaHood’s tenure include requiring airlines to disclose all fees on their websites and refund bag fees if they lose the luggage. DOT also doubled the amount of compensation passengers are eligible for if they are involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight.

Some of those regulations are more important than the tarmac delay rule because they affect many more travelers on a daily basis, Leocha said.

At the same time, LaHood’s DOT showed the regulations finally have teeth by levying hefty fines against airlines that break the rules.

“He has been very active in instituting, and following up and enforcing,” Leocha told NBC News, adding he would give the departing secretary a grade of “A-plus-plus-plus.”

LaHood also received warm praise from the National Association of Railroad Passengers, which called him an energetic advocate for the improvement and expansion of America’s passenger rail network.

Other travel advocates were somewhat more critical.

Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, gave LaHood a grade of B-minus.

“He certainly presided over an improvement in passenger rights. In the last year, though, he seems to have rested on the momentum that was there previously,” Hudson said.

Hudson’s group presented the DOT with 19 recommendations last summer, he noted, including establishing an airline passenger emergency hotline and providing travelers with compensation for excessive flight delays. But the government committee that examined the proposed reforms ignored them, Hudson said.

He hopes that whoever replaces LaHood will take a much more serious look at the recommendations.

Meanwhile, Airlines for America (A4A) – which represents some of the country’s biggest carriers – praised LaHood’s commitment to safety. The group hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the secretary, warning at one point that the tarmac delay rule would lead to more canceled flights, greater passenger inconvenience and would be inconsistent with the goal of completing as many flights as possible.

LaHood will leave his post once a successor is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. A4A will focus on his successor, who is not immediately clear.

“We look forward to working with the next DOT leader on ways to build on the safety and efficiency of the airlines, while ensuring they are able to compete globally,” A4A spokesman Vaughn Jennings said in a statement to NBC News.

So what’s next? Leocha said he’s not worried that the momentum will stop when LaHood departs. The Consumer Travel Alliance plans to keep up the pressure on the new secretary of transportation, he added.

“The culture of taking care of consumers and passengers is really ingrained at the DOT and it would take something really dramatic to have that change," Leocha said. "I just don’t see that happening.”