Air travel debacles Put a star of Biden’s Cabinet in the hot seat

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a campaign event for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), in Henderson, Nev. on November 7, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON – Appearing on late-night television in September, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expressed confidence that airlines will improve their performance after a dismal summer of flight delays and cancellations.

“I think it will be better since the holidays,” Buttigieg told the host, James Corden.

His prediction did not age well.

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Around Christmas, a winter storm plunged Southwest Airlines into an operational meltdown, causing the cancellation of thousands of flights and stranding passengers for days during the busy holiday travel season. And last week, a Federal Aviation Administration system outage forced departures to be halted across the country for about 90 minutes, unleashing another wave of chaos at airports around the country.

The back-to-back airline travel tragedies have put an unwelcome spotlight on Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has risen from obscurity to vie for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and beyond. became the first openly gay person to be confirmed. from the Senate to a Cabinet position.

Until recent weeks, Buttigieg, 41, had enjoyed a relatively smooth run as transport secretary. He traveled the country to promote the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure law, appearing with grateful local leaders to trumpet the money headed his way. He has also been a messenger for the White House on topics beyond roads and bridges, right on Fox News and appeared on Sunday talk shows to promote the agenda of President Joe Biden.

But the recent aviation woes present a formidable challenge for a Cabinet member whose previous managerial experience came on a much smaller stage. Even before the Southwest merger, the Department of Transportation had received a flood of consumer complaints about flight delays and cancellations, and Buttigieg had faced calls to take more aggressive action to penalize airlines. airlines for their failures.

“Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation has been reluctant to hold airlines accountable,” said John Breyault, vice president for public policy at the National Consumers League. “While Secretary Buttigieg has talked some tough talk, especially in recent months, we’ve also seen that actually translate into action.”

Buttigieg responded to the Southwest fiasco by calling the disruptions “unacceptable” and reminding the airline of its obligations to consumers, including providing prompt refunds for canceled flights and reimbursing travel expenses.

“Southwest is responsible for getting its house in order,” Buttigieg said in an interview. “But what we will do is put them under a microscope, both in terms of their customer service and in terms of this responsibility, and what they have to do to not be so vulnerable in the future.”

The FAA shutdown, which occurred when a system that sends safety alerts to pilots went down, fell more directly under Buttigieg’s watch, and came at a time when the FAA lacks a permanent leader. Buttigieg quickly took responsibility for the mess, telling reporters, “When there’s a problem with a system of government, we’re going to own it, we’re going to find it, and we’re going to fix it.” The FAA said Thursday that a preliminary review of the incident found that contractor personnel had “inadvertently deleted files” while working on the system.

Complaints about air travel predate Buttigieg’s time as transportation secretary, and he has a limited number of tools to improve the flying experience for the American public. Congress passed legislation in 1978 to deregulate the airline industry, and the mergers left four carriers dominating the domestic market.

In the case of the Southwest disaster, the airline struggled to recover from the winter storm after its flight crew scheduling system became overwhelmed. Its problems have been compounded by the “point-to-point” approach it uses for routes, with planes hopscotching from city to city without returning to major hub airports. As secretary of transportation, Buttigieg could exert pressure on Southwest to do the right thing by its customers, but he had no role in the internal operational problems of the airline.

The recent mess in the nation’s air travel system is also an unwanted turn of events for Buttigieg, whose image rests heavily on his technocratic will. The Harvard-educated former McKinsey & Co. consultant has often boasted of his efforts in South Bend to improve the performance of city government, including leveraging data to inform decision-making.

Buttigieg’s status as a rising figure in the Democratic Party has also made him a prime target for Republicans, who lambasted him after the FAA grounded flights. “Pete Buttigieg couldn’t hold a funeral in a car,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted last week.

In addition to potentially running for president again, Buttigieg has been speculated as a possible Senate candidate in Michigan, where Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, announced this month that she would not seek re-election next year. Buttigieg had previously changed her residence to Michigan, her husband’s home state. He responded to Stabenow’s announcement by saying, “I am completely focused on serving the president in my role as transportation secretary, and I am not looking for any other job.”

Buttigieg became transport secretary in early 2021 as demand for air travel rebounded after a sharp decline at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. His tenure coincided with a period when airlines struggled with staffing problems and travelers suffered a host of misfortunes.

Last year, 20.4% of scheduled flights were delayed and 2.3% were canceled, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Both figures have increased since 2021, when 16.1% of flights were delayed and 1.5% were cancelled. In the first three quarters of last year, the Department of Transport received nearly 49,000 consumer complaints about air travel, a 27% increase from the same period a year earlier and far higher than the pre-pandemic levels.

In the interview, Buttigieg pointed to a number of steps his department had taken last year to protect air travelers. In August, the department proposed to tighten the rules for when airlines are required to provide refunds to customers. In September, it launched an online dashboard that shows the services airlines have committed to providing travelers in the event of a delay or cancellation. Administration officials said its creation had spurred airlines to improve their policies.

“In terms of what we’ve done and in terms of what we’re doing, I would compare our work in this area against anyone who has taken this on at the federal level,” Buttigieg said.

Under Buttigieg, the Transportation Department has also fined air carriers nearly $16 million for various violations, including nearly $12 million for problems related to customer refunds. Most of the fines were imposed on foreign carriers. Buttigieg said the penalties assessed last year amounted to a record for the agency.

The department is also investigating three U.S. airlines over whether they scheduled flights they didn’t have enough staff to support, an agency spokesman said, though he declined to identify the airlines.

Even before the recent air travel woes, Buttigieg had faced calls to take a harder line with the nation’s airlines, which have received tens of billions of dollars in federal aid to help keep their workers employed during the height of the pandemic.

In a letter to Buttigieg in June, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked him to fine airlines $55,000 per passenger for each canceled flight they knew they could not accommodate adequately and $15,000 per passenger for flights with long delays.

State attorneys general have also pushed for tougher oversight. In a letter to congressional leaders in August, a bipartisan group of about three dozen attorneys general blamed the Department of Transportation for failing to protect travelers and hold airlines accountable, saying a “vacuum of oversight allows airlines to mistreat consumers.” The attorneys general, who said the issue spanned administrations of both parties, called for legislation that would empower them to enforce consumer protection laws against airlines.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said Buttigieg should impose stiff financial penalties on carriers, similar to how the Obama administration cracked down on passengers who were stuck on the tarmac.

“Just saying that customers have to be reimbursed and there will be retroactive fines, that’s important, but not enough,” Khanna said. “There needs to be fines across the board for flight cancellation and failure to provide customer service, and there needs to be accountability in that.”

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said that Buttigieg inherited a department that had been significantly underfunded and came with a lot of problems. She said that to his credit, he had been in constant communication with aviation leaders and had been front and center in addressing issues as they arose.

“People can see that he engages in any problem and takes ownership of it,” said Nelson, “but this also opens him up to criticism, because there is not a day that someone does not find fault in the airline industry”.

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