Air travel is a hot mess. There’s not much the government can do about it.
The airline industry may be booming, but flying is arguably worse than ever, with cancellations and delays rampant — and more disruptions predicted for the busy July Fourth weekend.
And there’s not much the federal government can do about it.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently called airline CEOs to a meeting to talk about how to ease the waves of delays and cancellations that have stranded thousands of passengers this summer — during the Juneteenth-Father’s Day weekend, some 3,000 flights were canceled and tens of thousands more delayed. But so far, talking is all that’s happened.
“Our preferred way to deal with these issues is partnership,” Buttigieg said at an industry lunch on Wednesday. He added that DOT will “use whatever authorities are available to us to ensure the customers have a good experience.”
But so far the administration has been hesitant to flex its authorities to compel action, beyond expediting flight refunds and using its bully pulpit.
At the lunch, Buttigieg suggested that so far the administration hopes airlines can handle the problem themselves. He observed that airlines have been actively canceling flights and adjusting schedules to try to avoid last-minute disruptions, so “our hope is before resorting to measures like that the problem can be solved on the front end.”
Aviation analysts and legal experts said even if Buttigieg wanted to crack down, there’s not much the government can do in the short term to help air travel run more smoothly.
“There’s really very little that the government can do because airlines are supposed to be a free-market business,” said airline and travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. “They are deregulated and they are supposed to be able to compete as they believe is necessary while not compromising safety.”
Arjun Garg, the former chief counsel at the Federal Aviation Administration, agreed with that assessment. Garg, now a partner at Hogan Lovells, pointed to the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act that eliminated government control of airline prices, routes and schedules.
“Outside of a handful of the country’s most congested airports where the FAA imposes slot controls to limit traffic because demand exceeds runway capacity, there’s no established pathway for regulators to force airlines into certain timetables for the purpose of alleviating flight cancellations or delays,” he said.
Airlines are trying to get a handle on delays — much of which are attributed to short staffing for various safety-sensitive positions — by cutting flights carriers know they won’t have enough staff to fly, and by making it easier for passengers to change their plans.
Delta Air Lines, for example, proactively announced it will offer travel waivers this weekend for passengers to avoid paying large sums in fare or change fees ahead of July Fourth. And United cut its capacity at Newark Liberty International Airport — one of the worst at present for delays and canceled flights — to try curb ongoing disruptions there.
But that may not be enough to avoid a painful weekend.
Buttigieg sat down with NBC News this week, admitting “there are going to be challenges” during one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, with AAA predicting more than 3.5 million Americans will fly. (He recently had his own flight problems — his flight was canceled Father’s Day weekend. He instead opted to drive from Washington, D.C., to New York.)
Make them pay
Some lawmakers have called for DOT to start fining airlines when they schedule flights they know they won’t be able to staff, which then inevitably are canceled. That includes Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is asking DOT to start fining airlines $55,000 per passenger for every flight canceled due to foreseeable staffing problems, as well as fines for delays of more than two hours and refunds for delays of more than an hour.
“While the price of airline tickets have skyrocketed by 38 percent over the last year, airline delays have increased by 50 percent and cancellations are up by 18 percent compared to where they were before the pandemic,” Sanders wrote in a letter to Buttigieg. “So far this year, one out of every five flights in the United States were delayed.”
“This is simply unacceptable,” Sanders continued, especially considering the $54 billion in pandemic assistance American taxpayers gave to the airline industry.
DOT has broad consumer protection authority, which has been used in the past to underpin decisions to fine airlines for keeping passengers sitting on the tarmac for too long, not issuing prompt cash refunds and even to ban smoking and cell phone use on planes. So far, the agency doesn’t seem poised to use it now, beyond pressuring airlines for timely refunds.
Last year DOT proposed a $25.5 million fine against Air Canada for not issuing cash refunds promptly during the pandemic. (The airline ultimately negotiated a new $4.5 million fine, and ended up paying $2 million — the rest was considered fulfilled in already-refunded fares.) And it seems that DOT will continue to use that playbook.
A DOT spokesperson told POLITICO Wednesday that it has opened more than 20 investigations into airlines failing to provide prompt refunds and has enforced rules requiring airlines to provide refunds for canceled flights. It’s also in the process of making a new rule that would protect consumers against unfair and deceptive practices by airlines and ticket agents.
Of late, officials have been leveraging the department’s Twitter account to remind passengers of these rights and where they can file a complaint or refund request, and simultaneously, the FAA has been using Twitter to give passengers a heads up where they can expect bad weather.
Harteveldt, the analyst, said fines aren’t a silver bullet because they take a while to enact. Typically, they become a negotiation between the regulator and the airline. They are rarely paid in full, often knocking off part of the cash value in exchange for mediations or training programs, and can take time to sort out.
Harteveldt said in the long term, the FAA can “have a larger seat at the table” at airports where congestion hobbles operations, like Newark. But it isn’t likely to happen quickly.
Who’s at fault?
Though media coverage of delays and cancellations spikes around big events like holiday weekends, the trends driving the issues aren’t new, said Scott Hamilton of aviation firm Leeham Company LLC.
Airlines are working with tight pilot and crew scheduling that gives little slack in the event of an unforeseen delay caused by something like computer system outages. Couple that with air traffic controller staffing challenges at some locations, packed airport tarmacs at busy hubs and pilot training backlogs that limit personnel availability, and you have the present situation, Harteveldt said.
All parties don’t agree on where shortfalls exist, either.
Last week, Airlines for America, the trade association representing U.S. carriers, fired back at criticism by saying the FAA needs to clean up its own retention and staffing issues among air traffic control facilities, especially in New York and Jacksonville. Jacksonville has been understaffed for roughly a month, A4A noted in a letter to Buttigieg.
According to Delta, citing internal data, flight cancellations due to problems at FAA’s facilities are up 195 percent this year compared to 2021, its CEO Ed Bastian told staff, as reported by Airline Weekly. A4A said those cancellations are partly attributable to the staff shortage “which is crippling to the entire east coast traffic flows.” If air traffic control delays a flight, it increases the chance crews will be unable to make their next flight as the clock ticks down on their shift.
The FAA countered that it’s placed “more controllers in high demand areas, and increased data sharing” to deal with the fallout, but the airlines ultimately owe travelers the service they’ve paid for.
“People expect when they buy an airline ticket that they’ll get where they need to go safely, efficiently, reliably and affordably,” the FAA said. “After receiving $54 billion in pandemic relief to help save the airlines from mass layoffs and bankruptcy, the American people deserve to have their expectations met.”
Meanwhile, airline executives have called for ways to juice pilot hiring, including job fairs and pay incentives — and potentially relaxing training requirements to fly a commercial plane.
Similar to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday travel season, some airlines are creating bonus and pay incentives to get more pilots and crew into the scheduled rotation to avoid major hiccups.
It may be cold comfort to people stranded in a strange airport, but Buttigieg on Wednesday said disruptions are offering “a lot of data points” for the airline sector to understand how they need to recalibrate their schedules moving forward.
But that’s not likely to help any time soon.
“Basically, consumers are screwed for the next several months,” Hamilton said.
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