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A screen shows canceled flights at Boston's airport

A screen shows canceled flights at Logan International Airport on February 4, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo: Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Sanders, Fetterman Urge Buttigieg to Fine Airlines Over Flight Cancellations

"The American people are sick of airlines ripping them off, canceling flights at the last minute, and delaying flights for hours on end," said the Vermont senator.

Jake Johnson

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman on Wednesday urged the Department of Transportation to levy hefty fines against airlines that schedule flights they're unable to adequately staff, causing the kinds of mass cancellations that have thrown travelers into chaos in recent months.

"Government has a responsibility to hold these airlines accountable."

In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg ahead of what's expected to be a tumultuous July 4 travel weekend, Sanders (I-Vt.) noted that "thousands of flight disruptions have left passengers and crew members stranded at crowded airports from one end of the country to the other forcing them to miss weddings, funerals, and business meetings and ruining family vacations that have been planned for months in advance."

"While the price of airline tickets has skyrocketed by 38% over the last year, airline delays have increased by 50% and cancellations are up by 18% compared to where they were before the pandemic," Sanders wrote. "So far this year, one out of every five flights in the United States were delayed, while airlines are canceling flights four times as often on high-travel weekends than they did in 2019."

"Perhaps most shocking," he added, "are recent allegations from the American Airlines pilots' union that airlines are intentionally scheduling flights they can't staff due to a pilot shortage. That is simply unacceptable."

To combat such behavior, Sanders said the Transportation Department should hit airlines with fines of $55,000 per passenger if they're found to have scheduled a flight they knew they couldn't fully staff.

The Vermont senator also called for fining airlines that delay domestic flights for more than two hours for reasons not related to weather, citing as precedent an Obama-era rule that imposes penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger on airlines that allow planes filled with travelers to sit on the tarmac for more than three hours due to delays.

The American people are sick of airlines ripping them off, canceling flights at the last minute, and delaying flights for hours on end," Sanders tweeted Wednesday.

Fetterman, too, invoked the Obama Transportation Department's rule in a Wednesday statement calling on the Biden DOT to levy the same $27,500-per-passnger fine against airlines that schedule flights they can't staff.

"When the airlines were struggling during Covid-19, we kept them afloat," said Fetterman, who is taking on Republican nominee Mehmet Oz for Pennsylvania's open Senate seat. "Taxpayers gave the airlines over $54 billion in relief funds so that they could keep serving us and be ready to go when demand picked back up again."

“But despite requirements to retain their workforce under the terms of the bailout, the airlines found loopholes to push thousands of pilots and crew out of their jobs," he continued. "Now as airlines are getting busier, they are overpromising, underdelivering, and leaving consumers in the dust."

Fetterman argued that fining airlines that are abusing their powers to the detriment of travelers and flight staff is "the very least" the Transportation Department can do.

"Government has a responsibility to hold these airlines accountable," Fetterman said. "Taxpayers saved them, and now it's their turn to hold up their end of the deal."

Last week, the spokesperson of the Allied Pilots Association (APA)—which represents 15,000 American Airlines pilots—accused major airlines of "trying to fly airplanes without the pilots available" in a dangerous attempt to boost their profits.

In an interview on CNBC, the APA's Dennis Tajer said airline corporations "looked at the demand, and they said: 'Here's where the money is. Let's go get it.'"

"But they never had a plan to actually fulfill that, and they left it on our plate," added Tajer, who is a pilot himself.

In a column earlier this month, The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner explained that "in principle, the DOT has extensive unused regulatory powers under its statutory general authority to regulate against 'unfair and deceptive practices or unfair methods of competition.'"

"In practice, the department is far too solicitous of the airlines," Kuttner wrote. "Under Buttigieg, the DOT has investigated all the major airlines for failure to issue timely refunds [for flight cancellations], but the fines levied totaled only a few million dollars."

"This is not even a pinprick," he added, "when you compare it with airline revenues of $130 billion in 2021."

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