WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Tuesday he is leaving office after four years as arguably the most consumer-friendly secretary that airline passengers have had.
LaHood, 67, a former Republican member of Congress serving in President Obama's Democratic administration, says he will stay until a successor is chosen and confirmed. He will be the sixth department head of 15 to leave as Obama begins his second term.
It's unclear whom Obama will pick to succeed his personal friend for the office. LaHood said he doesn't know what he will do next.
During his tenure, LaHood said he championed consumer priorities that he and former senator Obama shared as members of Congress from Illinois.
In addition to protecting airline passengers, he's campaigned against distracted driving on the nation's roads and cracked down on bus companies after a rash of fatal highway crashes.
"I think safety is what I'll be remembered for," LaHood told USA TODAY. "We wake up every day and think of safety. Because we do, I think we've set a very high bar for safety in a lot of different forms of transportation."
In perhaps his signature move, LaHood created heavy fines for airlines that left passengers stranded on planes during long tarmac delays. Since the fines, the delays have almost disappeared.
Another LaHood-inspired rule requires airlines to include government taxes in the most prominent airfares they advertise. The rule also requires airlines to post fees for other services, such as for checking luggage or seat assignments, on their websites.
Enforcement fines against airlines for civil violations ranging from aircraft maintenance to misleading advertising nearly doubled during this administration.
To enhance safety, another rule requires more training for airline co-pilots, in the most significant changes in pilot rules in 50 years. Another safety rule requires more rest for pilots in airlines carrying passengers.
People in the travel industry and government see LaHood's actions as the most beneficial for airline passengers by a Cabinet secretary since the industry was deregulated in 1978.
"The best ever, in my recollection," said Paul Ruden, a longtime aviation lawyer who left the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1969 and is now senior vice president at the American Society of Travel Agents. "That's not to say some of others didn't do good things. But he has clearly distinguished himself."
LaHood's tarmac-delay rule was aimed at preventing passengers from being stuck on planes and it came after a decade of intermittent calamities and inaction.
Northwest Airlines grabbed headlines in 1999 after stranding a plane full of passengers in Detroit during a blizzard. A traveler named Kate Hanni became a vocal advocate for passenger rights after her American Airlines flight was stuck for nine hours in Austin, Texas, in 2006. And a Valentine's Day ice storm in 2007 renewed attention to the problem, when JetBlue passengers were stranded at New York's JFK Airport.
In December 2009, LaHood for the first time set a limit that airlines couldn't leave passengers on planes sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours without letting them get off. The rule was later expanded to prevent four-hour delays on international flights. The rule threatened fines up to $27,500 per passenger.
"I know we've haven't always seen eye to eye on this, but I appreciate the carriers who have worked with us," LaHood told the Aero Club at a luncheon Jan. 23, the fourth anniversary of his becoming secretary. "And I think we can all appreciate the benefits of passenger protections."
He said that although airlines fought the rule, they recognize that it enhanced confidence in them from customers. And he said Obama personally thanked him for the move, which didn't take a vote in Congress to get it done.
"I think he did it because he heard from people that finally somebody was holding the airlines' feet to the fire about consumer rights," LaHood said. "It really required them to make sure that they were not abusing passengers who pay hard-earned money to fly in their planes."
Bill McGee, a consumer advocate who wrote the book, Attention All Passengers, praised LaHood for working on behalf of consumers despite an airline lobby that remains a formidable presence.
"It's clear that Secretary LaHood has been a proactive advocate for consumers, more than any of his predecessors," McGee said. "With the stroke of a pen, he single-handedly addressed the tarmac delay issue that had tied up Congress for years."
The next major rule was announced in April 2011 and required airlines to post their full airfares, including all government taxes, in every advertised price. Other parts of the rule required airlines to reimburse passengers for bag fees if their bags are lost and allow passengers to cancel reservations within 24 hours without penalty.
Airlines fought the rule in court. They argued that forcing the most prominent advertised fare to include taxes violated the First Amendment and that allowing cancellations within 24 hours was arbitrary and capricious.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the rule last July as within the department's power to prevent unfair or deceptive practices in the industry.
"We know that the vast majority of average citizens buy their tickets online. They need to have full disclosure," LaHood said. "They know what the bottom line is when they buy a ticket. They can shop around. I think it's encouraged the airlines to be more competitive."
Passenger advocates such as Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, say government rules for airlines after deregulation were limited to basically reimbursement for lost baggage and for overbooking flights. But Leocha says LaHood wielded the power of his office for passengers.
"No one has been even close to Secretary LaHood," Leocha said.
The first tarmac-delay fine, against American Eagle for $900,000, was announced in November 2011. The fine was for 15 flights with lengthy delays in thunderstorms the previous May 29 at Chicago's O'Hare airport in LaHood's home state..
The threat was potent even before that.
From when the rule went into effect in April 2010 through November 2012, the most recent statistics available, airlines have reported 90 tarmac delays of at least three hours, according to the department. That compares to 1,213 lengthy tarmac delays from the start of reporting in October 2008 to April 2010.
Fines grew significantly. From 2009 through 2012, the department issued 203 civil penalties totaling $16.5 million in fines, according to the aviation enforcement office. For comparison, the 105 penalties totaled $8.8 million during the previous four years, according to the department.
"We have, in this administration, been very, very aggressive in figuring out ways to do that that really haven't been done before," Robert Rivkin, the Transportation Department's general counsel, told a consumer panel last year. "That's a reflection of how seriously we take these matters and the lengths we will go to ensure that the industry takes it seriously."
The department has also worked to improve travel for people with disabilities. Longstanding requirements include providing priority storage for wheelchairs in larger planes and accessible lavatories in twin-aisle planes.
LaHood says he listened to concerns from the disabled and tried to meet their needs. The department is developing rules to improve access to airline websites and check-in kiosks.
"What Ray has been able to do with people with disabilities in terms of all sectors of transportation - whether it be bus, airplanes, trains - he's been really good at working on that," said Norm Mineta, a former transportation secretary who served in Congress with LaHood and is now vice chairman of public policy at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a public relations firm. "In terms of consumers, I think he's been doing a great job."
LaHood told USA TODAY that his worst day on the job was Feb. 12, 2009. That's when a Colgan Air crashed near Buffalo, killing 49 people on the plane and one on the ground. But that's also the last fatal crash in the United States of a commercial airliner carrying passengers.
As part of the reaction to that crash, the department proposed rules requiring more pilot rest and more training for co-pilots.
"When that plane iced up, the pilots really had no idea what to do. They did the complete opposite of what they should have done in order to land that plane safely in Buffalo," said LaHood, who credited the advocacy of families of the victims of that crash for developing the rules. "We now have in place better training and more training and rest for pilots from the time they leave their duty as a pilot and have to come back on duty."
The fatigue rule announced December 2011 represented the Federal Aviation Administration's most sweeping changes in pilot rules since the last major revision in the 1960s. The rule aimed to close loopholes that allowed pilots to work long shifts and then counted as rest the time it took to eat and get to a hotel.
Cargo pilots have complained that the rule should cover them, too. But the department found that, for lack of passengers, the cost of enforcing the rule would be too great for the number of people protected.
LaHood has encouraged cargo carriers to honor the rule, but they declined.
Another rule in reaction to the Colgan crash required co-pilots to get as much training as pilots for their certificates. The FAA said it identified 61 accidents -- which killed 107 people and seriously injured 28 others -- during the past decade that could have been mitigated had the proposed training requirements been in place.
The rule means that by August that co-pilots will need to accumulate 1,500 hours flying, rather than the previous 250 hours. Exceptions were made for former military pilots with 750 hours of flight time and graduates with a four-year degree who have 1,000 hours.
"America's skies are the safest they've ever been," LaHood said in announcing the fatigue rule. "But they must be safer."
Before becoming secretary, LaHood, 67, served 14 years in Congress representing an Illinois district that included his birthplace of Peoria. He and his wife Kathy have four children and 10 grandchildren.
In Congress, LaHood served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that laid the groundwork for the cabinet post. The department has 55,000 employees and a $70 billion budget that oversees the airways, highways and maritime transportation.
LaHood said he won't give much thought to what he will do after leaving the cabinet "until I walk out the door."
"I think we've devoted all our time and energy to this job, and will continue to do that until the president names someone and that person is confirmed," LaHood said.
Besides aviation, LaHood said he has worked to improve pipeline safety after explosions, sought more authority to regulate transit after a fatal crash of Washington's subway and by cracking down on "fly by night" bus companies running primarily up and down the East Coast.
"Thousands of people get up every day and get on a plane, a bus, a train, in their car, and the one thing they don't think about is safety," LaHood said. "That's what we think about every day."
One of LaHood's pet projects is discouraging distracted driving through speeches and two summits with safety advocates. The department said 3,092 people were killed and an estimated 416,000 injured in crashes that resulted from distractions such as chatting or texting on the phone while behind the wheel.
"As is true with every secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood has made safety a priority," said James Burnley, a former transportation secretary with a law practice at Venable LLP. "The signature issue for him, for which he'll be remembered on the safety front, is probably going to be his campaign against distracted driving. It has had quite an impact."