On Tuesday, airports around the world tallied more than 22,000 flight delays and 2,100 cancellations, according to FlightAware tracking data. In the United States, a dozen airports saw at least 20% of their flights delayed. The worst offender was Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, where 42% of all flights departed late.
And just like Groundhog Day, travelers are seeing a repeat on Wednesday. By 11 a.m. Eastern Time, more than 13,000 flights had already been delayed and nearly 1,500 cancellations were in the books.
After receiving $54 billion in pandemic relief, it’s now time for airlines to “step up” and do more to quell these disruptions, U.S. Transportation Secretary told a panel on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday.
“The kind of breakdowns across the system are incredibly frustrating when we have supported the airlines in order to keep them in business,” Buttigieg said, noting that “keeping the airlines in business was the right thing to do” during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. “But they accepted a huge amount of taxpayer support. And a lot of us are saying, ‘Okay, the American people did our part to keep these planes in the sky.’”
“The rules of the bailout said that you couldn’t fire anybody to keep people on your payroll,” said Buttigieg. “But I see a lot of pilots into early retirement. And now they don’t have enough pilots. And sometimes there are other staffing or crew issues.”
A recent flurry of proposals from the Biden administration and legislators would turn the heat up on airlines to fix the problem or face the consequences.
Last week, the Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed mandating a universal threshold where airlines would reimburse passengers for delays of at least three hours for a domestic flight and at least six hours for an international flight.
The prior week, eight Democratic members of Congress introduced a bill to that would require airlines to offer customers a full cash refund within 30 days if their flight is canceled or significantly delayed less than 48 hours before departure.
On Tuesday, Representatives Jan Schakowsky and David Cicilline, two U.S. House Democrats, proposed making it unlawful for airlines to offer flights if they know they lack sufficient staff or to cancel flights close to scheduled departures because of foreseeable staffing issues.
“These are private profit-making businesses,” said Buttigieg. “They’re not going to do some of these things just because someone asked them nicely. That’s why the rules have to have teeth.”
The first set of teeth, said Buttigieg, includes assessing hefty fines if airlines are caught in unfair deceptive practices or failing to meet their obligations to passengers and consumers. The DOT may issue fines of up to $37,377 per violation.
In addition, airlines would be forced to pay back consumers for failing to deliver a service. “It’s one thing for [airlines] to have to write a check to the Treasury in the form of a fine, but we think is usually the best thing to happen is to make sure that the passenger the customer is is made right, is made whole.”