Air travel is a hot mess. The government can’t do much about it.

« Our favorite way to deal with these issues is through partnership, » Buttigieg said at an industry luncheon on Wednesday. He added that the DOT « will use every authority we have to ensure customers have a good experience. »

But so far, the administration has been reluctant to relax its powers to compel action, beyond speeding up flight refunds and using its bullying pulpit.

Over lunch, Buttigieg suggested that so far the administration is hoping airlines can handle the problem on their own. He observed that airlines were actively canceling flights and adjusting their schedules to try to avoid last-minute disruptions, so « our hope is before resorting to measures like this that the problem can be resolved upstream » .

Aviation analysts and legal experts said that even if Buttigieg wanted to crack down, there was little the government could do in the short term to help air travel go more smoothly.

« There’s really very little the government can do because airlines are supposed to be a free market business, » said Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel industry analyst. « They’re deregulated and they’re supposed to be able to compete as they see fit without compromising safety. »

Arjun Garg, the former chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration, agreed with this assessment. Garg, now a partner at Hogan Lovells, pointed to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 which eliminated government control over airline prices, routes and schedules.

« Apart from a handful of the nation’s busiest airports where the FAA imposes slot controls to limit traffic because demand exceeds runway capacity, there is no established path for regulators to compel airlines to adhere to certain schedules in an effort to mitigate flight cancellations or delays, » he said. said.

Airlines are trying to rein in delays — much of which is attributed to understaffing for various safety-critical positions — by cutting flights carriers know they won’t have enough staff to fly, and allowing passengers to change their plans more easily.

Delta Air Lines, for example, has proactively announced that it will offer travel waivers this weekend for passengers to avoid paying large sums in fare or changing fees before July 4. And United has reduced capacity at Newark Liberty International Airport – one of the worst currently for delays and canceled flights – in an attempt to curb the ongoing disruption there.

But that may not be enough to avoid a painful weekend.

Buttigieg spoke to NBC News this week, admitting « there will be challenges » during one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, with AAA predicting that more than 3.5 million Americans will fly. (He recently had his own flight troubles — his flight was canceled on Father’s Day weekend. He chose to drive from Washington, DC, to New York instead.)

make them pay

Some lawmakers have called on the DOT to start fining airlines when they schedule flights they know they won’t be able to staff, which are then inevitably canceled. This includes the senator. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), asking DOT to start fining airlines $55,000 per passenger for each flight canceled due to foreseeable staffing issues, as well as fines for delays over two hours and refunds for delays over one hour.

“While the price of airline tickets has skyrocketed 38% over the past year, airline delays have increased by 50% and cancellations have increased by 18% compared to what they were before the pandemic, » Sanders wrote in a letter to Buttigieg. « So far this year, one in five flights in the United States has been delayed. »

« It’s just unacceptable, » Sanders continued, especially given the $54 billion in pandemic relief U.S. taxpayers have given to the airline industry.

The DOT has broad consumer protection authority, which has been used in the past to underpin decisions to fine airlines for leaving passengers sitting on the tarmac too long, not issuing prompt cash refunds. and even to ban smoking and cell phone use on airplanes. So far, the agency doesn’t seem ready to use it now, beyond pressuring airlines for timely refunds.

Last year, the DOT proposed a $25.5 million fine to Air Canada for failing to promptly issue cash refunds during the pandemic. (The airline eventually negotiated a new $4.5 million fine and ended up paying $2 million — the rest was considered fulfilled in previously refunded fares.) And it looks like the DOT will continue to use this manual.

A DOT spokesperson told POLITICO on Wednesday it had opened more than 20 investigations into airlines that failed to provide prompt refunds and enforced rules requiring airlines to refund canceled flights. He is also drafting a new rule that would protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices by airlines and ticket agents.

Lately, officials have used the department’s Twitter account to remind passengers of these rights and where they can file a complaint or request for reimbursement, and simultaneously the FAA has used Twitter to let passengers know where they can expect bad weather.

Harteveldt, the analyst, said fines are not a silver bullet as they take time to enforce. Typically, they become a negotiation between the regulator and the airline. They are rarely paid in full, often eliminating some of the cash value in exchange for mediations or training programs, and can take time to settle.

Harteveldt said that in the long run, the FAA can « get a bigger seat at the table » at airports where congestion is hampering operations, like newark. But that is unlikely to happen quickly.

Who is at fault?

Although media coverage of delays and cancellations increases around big events like holiday weekends, the trends driving the issues aren’t new, said Scott Hamilton of aviation company Leeham Company LLC.

Airlines work with tight schedules for pilots and crews that leave little room for unforeseen delays caused by something like computer system failures. Add to that air traffic controller staffing issues in some locations, crowded airport tarmacs at busy hubs, and pilot training backlogs that limit staff availability, and you have the current situation, said Harteveldt.

Not all parties agree on the shortcomings either.

Last week, Airlines for America, the trade association representing US carriers, hit back at criticism by saying the FAA needed to address its own retention and staffing issues at air traffic control facilities, particularly at New York and Jacksonville. Jacksonville has been understaffed for about a month, A4A noted in a letter to Buttigieg.

According to Delta, citing internal data, flight cancellations due to issues at FAA facilities are up 195% this year compared to 2021, its CEO Ed Bastian told staff, as Airline Weekly reports. A4A said the cancellations are partly due to staff shortages « which are crippling the entire East Coast traffic flow ». If air traffic control delays a flight, it increases the chances that crews won’t be able to make their next flight as time is running out for their shift.

The FAA countered that it had placed « more screeners in high-demand areas and increased data sharing » to deal with the fallout, but airlines ultimately owe travelers the service they paid for.

“People expect when they buy an airline ticket to get where they need to go safely, efficiently, reliably and affordably,” the FAA said. “After receiving $54 billion in pandemic relief to help save airlines massive layoffs and bankruptcythe American people deserve to have their expectations met.

Meanwhile, airline executives have called for ways to hire pilots, including job fairs and pay incentives – and potentially relaxing training requirements to fly a commercial plane.

Similar to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday travel season, some airlines are creating bonuses and salary incentives to lure more pilots and crew into the scheduled rotation to avoid major setbacks.

That may be cold consolation for people stranded at a strange airport, but Buttigieg said Wednesday the disruption offered « lots of data points » for the airline industry to understand how they should recalibrate their schedules in the future.

But that shouldn’t help anytime soon.

« Basically, consumers are screwed for the next few months, » Hamilton said.


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