Canceled flight: Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg urges airlines to hire more agents to help travelers

The day after Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with airline executives to ask about the widespread flight disruptions, his own flight was canceled and he ended up driving from Washington to New York.

“It happens to a lot of people, and that’s exactly why we’re paying close attention to what can be done and how to make sure the airlines are delivering,” Buttigieg told The Associated Press in an interview on Saturday.

Buttigieg said he was pushing airlines to test their summer schedules to ensure they could operate all of their scheduled flights with the employees they had and to add customer service employees. This could prompt airlines to further reduce their summer schedules.

Buttigieg said his department could take enforcement action against airlines that fail to meet consumer protection standards. But first, he said, he wants to see if there are any major flight disruptions over the July 4 holiday weekend and the rest of the summer.

Enforcement actions can result in fines, although these are usually low. Air Canada agreed to pay a $2 million fine last year for slow refunds.

During Thursday’s virtual meeting, airline executives outlined the steps they are taking to avoid a repeat of Memorial Day weekend, when about 2,800 flights were canceled. “Now we’ll see how those steps measure up,” Buttigieg said.

Travel is back. On Friday, more than 2.4 million people passed through security checkpoints at US airports, less than 12,500 from crossing the pandemic-era peak recorded on Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

The record would surely have been broken if airlines had not canceled 1,400 flights, many of them because thunderstorms hit parts of the East Coast. A day earlier, airlines cut more than 1,700 flights, according to tracking service FlightAware.

Weather is always a wild card when it comes to flying in the summer, but airlines have also acknowledged staff shortages as travel resumed faster than expected from pandemic lows. Airlines are scrambling to hire pilots and other workers to replace employees they encouraged to quit after the pandemic.

It takes months to hire and train a pilot to meet federal safety standards, but the Department of Transportation sees no reason why airlines can’t immediately add customer service representatives to help passengers book if their flight is cancelled.

The government has its own staffing challenges.

Shortages at the Federal Aviation Administration, which is part of Buttigieg’s department, have contributed to flight delays in Florida. The FAA promises to increase the number of personnel there. The Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, has created a roving force of 1,000 screening officers who can be dispatched to airports where screening lines get too long.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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