U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg testifies at a congressional hearing

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg testifies at a congressional hearing on July 19, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

'He's Failed to Take Real Action': Buttigieg Under Fire for Handling of Airline Debacle

"Secretary Buttigieg has spent months appearing to regulate rather than actually regulating," said one expert.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is facing growing backlash from members of Congress and corporate watchdogs who say his department failed to take sufficient action in the lead-up to mass flight cancellations surrounding the Christmas holiday, a meltdown that has its roots in decades of airline consolidation, greed, and lax oversight.

On Thursday, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) took to Twitter to argue that "this mess with Southwest could have been avoided," singling out the airline responsible for the overwhelming majority of recent flight cancellations in the United States.

Khanna noted that he joined Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) earlier this year in urging the Department of Transportation (DOT) "to implement fines and penalties on airlines for canceling flights" after a wave of cancellations during a July 4 travel surge. Sanders specifically called for a "fine of $27,500 per passenger for all domestic flights that are delayed more than two hours and all international flights that are delayed more than three hours when passengers are forced to wait on the tarmac," as well as a "fine of $15,000 per passenger for all domestic flights that are delayed more than two hours."

"Why were these recommendations not followed?" Khanna asked Thursday.

The Transportation Department did fine six airlines a total of $7.25 million in November for major delays in refunding customers whose flights were canceled or changed, but Southwest and its top competitors were spared any penalties, prompting criticism that Buttigieg left out the "worst offenders."

William McGee, a senior fellow for Aviation and Travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, argued Thursday that while "there's plenty of blame to go around" for the latest cancellation crisis, "Secretary Buttigieg has spent months appearing to regulate rather than actually regulating."

"How do I know? Because I've spent thousands of hours annually for 23 years fighting airlines. Those of us in advocacy trenches can testify to DOT inaction," McGee wrote. "Criticizing [Buttigieg's] lack of action is neither unfair nor inaccurate. When advocates met with him in 2021, most of us were impressed and optimistic. But he's failed to take real action."

"He has broad powers to act on unfair and deceptive acts—and airlines have done both," McGee added. "Southwest was inevitable after he failed to punish awful behavior all year."

In the face of mounting criticism, Buttigieg on Thursday sent a letter to Southwest CEO Bob Jordan calling the airline's mass cancellations "unacceptable" and demanding that affected passengers be refunded as required under federal law, which mandates refunds if airlines cancel or significantly delay flights and the customer opts not to travel.

"I hope and expect that you will follow the law, take the steps laid out in this letter, and provide me with a prompt update on Southwest's efforts to do right by the customers it has wronged," wrote Buttigieg, who in September downplayed the potential for holiday travel chaos.

The letter and Buttigieg's promise to investigate airline violations are unlikely to quell outrage over the Transportation Department's tepid approach to the industry's misconduct, which state officials and members of Congress had been vocally warning about months ahead of the current debacle.

In November, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called on Buttigieg to strengthen the Transportation Department's proposed rule aimed at bolstering protections for customers seeking ticket refunds.

The senators argued the rule, which has yet to be finalized, doesn't go nearly far enough to safeguard consumers and prevent airlines from skirting the law.

"Of the nearly 16,000 complaints to DOT in the first half of 2022, nearly two-thirds—10,089—were about airline refunds, compared to just 742 refunds complaints in 2019, an increase of 1,260%," the lawmakers wrote. "These numbers tell a clear story: Airlines are delaying and canceling historic numbers of flights and failing to provide consumers with the refunds to which they are entitled."

As The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner explained, the DOT rule in its current form "does nothing to force the airlines to refund the roughly $10 billion still owed to consumers for canceled flights since the pandemic began in 2020."

"It does nothing but allow DOT and Buttigieg to claim they are making an advance on policy while actually taking a step backwards. Codifying the policy will take time and resources away from just enforcing the existing interpretation, at a time when cancellations are high," Kuttner added. "These actions amount to a smoking gun. The airlines are mocking DOT policy, and Buttigieg is letting them get away with it. By kicking the can down the road with a new rule that will be subject to an extended comment period and further delay, Buttigieg lets the airlines off the hook for actions that flagrantly violate current DOT policy right now."

In early August, Markey joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and other lawmakers in introducing legislation that would "provide consumers an enforceable right to a full cash refund for flight and ticket cancellations" and enact other reforms that go beyond the DOT's proposed rule.

"Enough is enough: Travelers are sick of wasting their valuable time fighting the airlines to receive their legally-required cash refunds," Markey said at the time. "And they are tired of making flight reservations months in advance, only to face a health scare that forces them to choose between canceling a nonrefundable flight, or traveling and risking the health of their fellow passengers."

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