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Buttigieg promises action on airline delays

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks to the media.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday that his agency is ready to take enforcement actions against airlines that don’t perform, as flight delays and cancellations continue to roil the busy summer travel season.

During a segment on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Buttigieg said as the pent-up demand for travel continues, the Department of Transportation can and will enforce federal requirements, such as the need for airlines to issue prompt refunds to passengers whose flights are canceled.

“When the right thing to do is to roll up our sleeves and bring the airlines to the table and work with them, I prefer to do that, but we’re also going to use our enforcement powers to make sure passengers have a better experience,” the secretary said, adding, “but remember at the end of the day, these are private businesses.”

Airlines have been actively canceling flights and adjusting schedules to try to get ahold of the ongoing problems, in some cases since the spring when carriers began proactively trimming summer schedules “by 16 percent to accommodate staffing levels,” according to Airlines for America, which represents major domestic airlines.

DOT under Buttigieg has proposed a series of rules intended to better protect airline consumers, the most substantial of which, announced last week, would strengthen protections for airline passengers who want a cash refund after a flight is canceled. While airlines can, at their discretion, give passengers who cancel of their own volition a cash refund, vouchers for a future flight are the typical method the carriers use.

The agency also has proposed other rules, including one that seeks to better define what is an “unfair” or “deceptive” airline practice, which the agency has authority to act on; one that seeks to give passengers more clarity about fees — like baggage fees — added on to the price of a ticket; and a notice urging U.S. airlines to seat families together during a flight without imposing additional fees.

But for the most part, those new proposals seek to help customers with redress for a bad experience they’ve already had, rather than forcing airlines to alleviate the overscheduled flights that are plaguing the system at present.

While the agency’s authorities do have limits, these reactionary measures have frustrated not only passengers, but some lawmakers who want to see the root causes of ongoing travel troubles addressed in the long term. And though DOT has proposed some regulations to protect consumer interests, the regulatory process takes time to sort out.

Earlier this week, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) introduced legislation that would allow the Federal Trade Commission — supplemented by state attorneys general — to police unfair and deceptive practices in airline ticketing, including when airlines sell tickets airlines know they can’t appropriately staff.

Schakowsky’s bill propels “the DOT to get more serious about their consumer protection mandate, which we’ve wanted strengthened for a long time,” said National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg.

“It’s also a wake-up call for the airlines that they need to do better, and provide both the flights that they say they’re going to be flying [and] bring their flight schedules in line with their capacity,” Greenberg said in an interview Tuesday.

Similar proposals have been suggested by big business hawks like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who want DOT to start fining airlines for every flight canceled or exponentially delayed due to foreseeable staffing problems.

Airlines have noted a lack of personnel slack in reserve crews — or backup surplus flight attendants and pilots — that exacerbate the issue and need to be addressed before flights take off. However, even as airlines continue to train staff in their attempt to ramp up to pre-pandemic travel levels, fight schedule cuts seem to be the only solution in the near term. American Airlines recently announced it will continue to reduce flights through the fall, following similar “strategic reductions” seen from United Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines and others in recent months.

But so far, DOT doesn’t seem likely to force the airlines’ hand, at least not yet. DOT has taken an approach of cajoling airlines to right-size their schedules and continuing to focus on reactive policies like ensuring people can get their money refunded when a problem happens.

On Wednesday, Buttigieg circled back around to his agency’s work on cash refunds, saying customers are entitled to more than just credits for future travel if an airline cancels or significantly delays a flight.

“The turnaround on a refund if [airlines] can’t get you to where you got to go, is a quick one, and if they don’t meet that, we will fine them, we will enforce [it] on them,” he said, citing an example of a recent fine proposed against Air Canada for not issuing cash refunds promptly during the pandemic. (However, the airline ended up with only a $4.5 million fine, which it paid only $2 million of, with the remaining balance fulfilled in already-refunded fares.)

DOT has a “number” of active investigation into airlines at the moment, the secretary said. A department spokesperson told POLITICO on Tuesday that investigators recently concluded 10 other inquiries into airlines related to consumer protection efforts.

“DOT’s collaboration with the airlines has contributed to some positive steps including the airlines setting more reasonable schedules, increased focus on customer service and increasing worker pay to improve recruitment, the spokesperson said. “DOT will continue to take action to protect the rights of airline passengers and consumer rights and when airlines fail to meet their responsibilities, they will be held accountable.”

Furthermore, the department is on the lookout for airline cancellations to reach pre-pandemic levels as a measure of success amid a busy and tumultuous travel season flooded with flight cancellations, delays and increased customer complaints.

“The number I’m most looking at is the daily cancellation rate and watching that get back below the level that we saw before the pandemic,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg has had a few canceled flights this summer, most recently as last week, and noted last weekend the air travel system saw more than 4 percent of flights canceled.

“Now that might not sound like a lot, but if you get anywhere north of 2 percent, that’s enough to really mess with the entire system,” he said. Pre-pandemic levels of cancellations hovered at around 2 percent.


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