Airlines have been actively canceling flights and adjusting schedules to try to address lingering issues, in some cases since the spring when carriers began proactively cutting summer schedules “by 16% to accommodate staffing levels,” according to Airlines for America, which represents major national airlines.
The DOT under Buttigieg has proposed a series of rules intended to better protect airline consumers, the most significant of which, announced last week, would strengthen protections for airline passengers who want cash payment. refund after flight cancellation. While airlines may, at their discretion, offer passengers who voluntarily cancel a cash refund, vouchers for a future flight are the typical method used by carriers.
The agency also proposed other rules, including one who seeks to better define what is an “unfair” or “deceptive” practice by an airline, over which the agency has the power to act; one that seeks to give passengers more clarity on fees — such as baggage fees — added to the price of a ticket; and an opinion urging US airlines to place families together during a flight without charging additional fees.
But for the most part, these new proposals are aimed at helping customers fix a bad experience they’ve already had, rather than forcing airlines to ease the overscheduled flights currently plaguing the system.
While agency authorities have limits, these reactionary moves have frustrated not only passengers, but some lawmakers who want to see the root causes of ongoing travel problems addressed. long-term. And while the DOT has proposed regulations to protect consumer interests, the regulatory process takes time to sort out.
Earlier this week, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and David Cicilline (DR.I.) introduced legislation that would allow the Federal Trade Commission — supplemented by state attorneys general — to police unfair practices and misleading in airline ticketing, including When airlines sell tickets, airlines know they can’t have the right staff.
Schakowsky’s bill pushes “the DOT to take more seriously its consumer protection mandate, which we have long wanted to strengthen,” said National Consumers League Executive Director Sally Greenberg.
“It’s also a wake-up call for airlines that they need to do better and deliver both the flights they say they’re going to fly. [and] align their flight schedules with their capacity,” Greenberg said in an interview Tuesday.
Similar proposals have been suggested by corporate hawks like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who want the DOT to start fining airlines for every flight canceled or exponentially delayed due to predictable staffing issues.
Airlines have noted understaffing in reserve crews – or surplus flight attendants and pilots – which is compounding the problem and needs to be addressed before flights take off. However, even as airlines continue to train staff in their bid to reach pre-pandemic travel levels, reductions in combat schedules appear to be the only short-term solution. American Airlines recently announced it would continue to cut flights through the fall, following similar “strategic cuts” seen at United Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines and others in recent months.
But so far, the DOT doesn’t seem likely to force the airlines’ hand, at least not yet. The DOT has taken an approach of cajoling airlines to adjust their schedules and continuing to focus on responsive policies, like ensuring people can get their money back if something goes wrong.
Wednesday, Buttigieg walked back his agency’s work on cash refunds, saying customers are entitled to more than just credits for future travel if an airline cancels or significantly delays a flight.
“The repayment period if [airlines] can’t get you where you need to go, is fast, and if they don’t respect that, we’ll fine them, we’ll enforce [it] on them,” he said, citing an example of a recent proposed fine against Air Canada for failing to promptly issue cash refunds during the pandemic. (However, the airline ended up with only a $4.5 million fine, of which it only paid $2 million, with the remaining balance settled from previously refunded fares.)
The DOT currently has a “number” of active airline investigations, the secretary said. A department spokesperson told POLITICO on Tuesday that investigators recently concluded 10 other airline investigations related to consumer protection efforts.
“DOT’s collaboration with airlines has contributed to some positive steps, including airlines setting more reasonable schedules, an increased focus on customer service, and increased worker compensation to improve recruitment,” said the spokesperson. “The DOT will continue to take action to protect the rights of air passengers and the rights of consumers and when airlines fail to fulfill their responsibilities, they will be held accountable.”
Additionally, the department is seeking airline cancellations to reach pre-pandemic levels as a measure of success amid a busy and tumultuous travel season awash in flight cancellations, delays and increased customer complaints.
“The number I’m looking at the most is the daily cancellation rate and watching it go back below the level we saw before the pandemic,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg has had a few flights canceled this summer, most recently last week, and noted last weekend that the airline system had seen more than 4% of canceled flights.
“Now that might not seem like a lot, but if you go north of 2%, it’s enough to really mess up the whole system,” he said. Cancellation levels before the pandemic hovered around 2%.