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Web extra: Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Ed Markey on actions the government can take to

A JetBlue Airbus taxis to a gate as an American Airlines jet is seen parked at its gate at Tampa International Airport in Florida. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
A JetBlue Airbus taxis to a gate as an American Airlines jet is seen parked at its gate at Tampa International Airport in Florida. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Delays. Cancellations. Passengers stuck in the wrong city. Hear our hour on the state of the airline industry here.

Web Extra Transcript

On today’s main show, we discussed the root causes of the problems plaguing airlines and air travel this summer. What, if anything, can be done to make the system resilient?

On Point senior editor speaks with Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the actions the federal government can take to improve the airline industry.

DOREY SCHEIMER: I saw your release that you sent letters to the major airlines. What are you asking for from the airlines?

ED MARKEY: Well, we want to know the number of flight delays, cancellations and reasons for the disruptions, on Memorial Day weekend, Juneteenth weekend and the 4th of July weekend. Each airline’s definition of a significant delay under which the airline is required to provide a refund to passengers when it cancels a flight. We want to know the number of customers on canceled flights over those holiday weekends who fought and received refunds, were rebooked on a different flight or neither sought a refund or were rebooked on a different flight.

And we also want to know the number of flights the airlines preemptively canceled this summer, and the process by which each airline determined which flights to cancel. We’re concerned that while the airlines have blamed the flight disruptions on poor weather or air traffic control issues, that we think that it’s important for us to identify the data indicating that roughly 40% of delays in the first four months of 2022 were due to circumstances within the airline’s control, which is the highest figure for over a decade. That’s what we want to know.

And if the airlines have control over 40% of the delays for a four-month period, we should know what the airlines did to deal with those problems. And how much information they gave to the consumer, that there could be problems in enough time for the flying individual to make an alternative plan. To drive, to find another airline, to take a train or to just cancel. But it’s clear that that information is not being provided to the consumer, even though it’s within the power of the airlines to develop that information and to give it to the flying public.

SCHEIMER: Senator Markey, we asked the listeners yesterday to leave us voicemails about their summer traveling experiences. And to no surprise, we got dozens about, you know, the costs and the pain that passengers are feeling when their flight gets canceled, and people stuck in hotels overnight, and people stuck at the airport overnight. And also having to pay very high costs to rebook another flight, to stay in those hotels. I think I talked to you first in 2018 or 2019 about your Passenger Bill Of Rights. What would having those kind of passenger protections do in a moment like this?

MARKEY: Well, again, it would ensure that there is a prioritization of the interest of the passengers. Because flight cancellations and significant delays have real world consequences for the travelers who may miss vacations, sacrifice time with loved ones, incur significant financial costs that the airlines are not responsible for. So it’s absolutely critical that if an airline cancels a flight for any reason, the airline must promptly provide passenger refunds as required by the law.

And they have to give them notice, that this flight could be canceled. Because otherwise the consumer winds up having to pay all those extra costs. And the airlines sit on the sidelines pretending that they have had no responsibility or accountability for that additional financial pain on the consumer.

SCHEIMER: Is there anything that the Commerce Committee is considering, in terms of taking action to force the hand of the airlines, or to ease the pain that travelers are feeling?

MARKEY: Well, I have been pressuring the airlines to address their record high rates of flight cancellations and delays over several years. Senator Blumenthal and I are calling on airlines to prepare for the busy weekend and to do what they can to protect travelers. Airlines’ excuses for these flight cancellations and delays won’t fly. And Senator Blumenthal and I are continuing to call on the airlines to do better for their customers, which is why we introduced the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, which would protect travelers by requiring airlines to refund tickets and compensate passengers for avoidable delays and cancellations.

And by the way, these cancellations are just the start of the problems travelers are facing these days. They are paying more for less, which is why we also introduced the Fair Fees Act, which would prohibit airlines from charging unreasonably high fees for basic services like check bags, seat selection and ticket changes. And I think as each one of these weekends go by, it’s going to build the pressure on the Commerce Committee in the Senate and the Senate itself to pass legislation to give protections to consumers in our country. And I’m going to be bringing that message back to the Senate floor after the 4th of July weekend.

SCHEIMER: What is the pushback that you’re getting from colleagues who don’t support the Passenger Bill of Rights?

MARKEY: Well, again, it’s the power of the airlines and resistance to additional regulations. But regulations are going to absolutely be demanded by the flying public, as these conditions weekend after weekend, day after day continue. Because it causes real world disruption to families when the airlines ignore the convenience of their passengers. And I think it’s going to lead to an explosion of interest in the Senate and the House to pass a Passenger Bill of Rights, to pass laws which guarantee that airlines cannot engage in this exploitative behavior, and if they do so, that they are punished.

SCHEIMER: You mentioned that the airlines are blaming other things for these delays and cancellations this summer, including the FAA. Have you had any conversations with Transportation Secretary Buttigieg about possible problems at the FAA and air traffic controllers that may be contributing?

MARKEY: Well, I’ve worked with my colleagues in communicating to the Department of Transportation and Secretary Buttigieg, asking them to strengthen consumer protections for travelers seeking airline ticket refunds. And I’ve asked the department to require airlines to ensure travelers know what their options are for getting a refund, and that they can do so easily. And I know the Secretary Buttigieg is working hard on this issue. What I don’t accept is an airline excuse that says they don’t have enough pilots. If they don’t have enough pilots, they should tell the flying public that before people buy a ticket, before they make a plan to travel, to see their loved ones, to go on a business trip.

They should make it clear they don’t have enough pilots and then not schedule those flights. So that passengers can make alternative plans for themselves, for their families, or for business. Right now, that information is not being transmitted, but they’re still using the absence of or lack of pilots as an excuse. The airlines know that, and they know how many pilots they have. They should make it clear as a result, they cannot meet the obligations which they have made to passengers in the country, and do so in a timely fashion so that passengers can make alternative plans.

SCHEIMER: The pilot shortage is only going to get worse, according to estimates, because of the aging pilot population, and because of this mandatory retirement age of 65. I know there is some legislation in the Senate that proposes raising that mandatory retirement age. Is that something you support or think might help the situation?

MARKEY: I would support any program that enhanced the ability that the flying public would have, enhanced convenience. But didn’t in any way compromise their safety. And that’s an important balance to strike. And so I think it’s important for the airlines to put together a new plan to ensure that they have the pilots they’re going to need, or at a minimum, again, communicate with the public that they don’t have the pilots and then the public will make alternative plans by themselves.

SCHEIMER: Senator, thank you so much for taking the time for On Point.

MARKEY: Glad to be with you. Thank you.

SCHEIMER: We’ve gotten dozens of voicemails from listeners talking about the real pain that they’ve experienced flying this summer with cancellations and delays, sleeping in airports across the country. What is your message to the flying public about the problems plaguing the industry this summer?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So the most important message that the flying public needs to hear is, We’ve got your back. Look, sometimes there’s just a situation like a weather event that is going to cause cancellations and delays. But other times, these are issues that are within somebody’s control. And we need to make sure that those issues are addressed so that we have fewer of these cancellations and delays in the first place.

And then when cancellations and delays do happen, we’re going to make sure that airlines meet their responsibilities to take care of you. For example, when your flight gets canceled and you can’t get to where you’re going, you’re entitled to a refund. A lot of folks don’t actually know that. And we will enforce that requirement. And if an airline is not offering that, when they’re required to do so, you can let us know through our Office of Aviation Consumer Protection. [That’s] gotten, frankly, far more complaints than we used to get in the past. And we’re taking action on this.

SCHEIMER: There’s reporting that after your meeting with airline executives last month, you said that you were waiting to talk about imposing fines on the airlines until you saw the performance of the airlines over the July 4th weekend. What is your assessment now of how the airlines operated over the weekend?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, look, we’re we’re always going to consider using all the enforcement tools that we have. But I was looking to see if there would be an improvement from the Memorial Day travel weekend, which was really tough in terms of disruption, to the July 4th travel weekend. And the July 4th travel weekend was indeed better.

We had some of the busiest travel days in the entire year, and we saw an improvement. But frankly, there’s a lot of room to improve. The cancellation rates were in the neighborhood of 3%, and that’s still too high compared to what you would expect to see in a normal year. We know this isn’t a normal year. Shockwaves from the pandemic are going through every part of the economy, including our aviation system. But these airlines, which received a lot of taxpayer funding to keep the system resilient, need to do their part. We’re going to do our part.

SCHEIMER: Secretary, I’m hearing a lot of that frustration that they got $54 billion of taxpayer money. And this is the kind of service, you know, the American flying public is getting this summer. What kind of responsibility does the airline have, because they got that money? What are the strings attached from the federal government to ensure that that money is being used responsibly, in the way it was intended?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the idea of that funding was to keep people on the job, and that was important for two reasons. First of all, of course, for the good of the workers who were able to tear up their furlough notices when the American rescue plan came out. And secondly, for the good of the system, to keep it resilient. Unfortunately, we did see with some airlines a lot of early retirements, something that was not part of the strings attached in the bill that Congress passed. But, you know, something that does seem to have left some of these airlines a little bit short, when it comes to servicing their routes. And the bottom line is that, you know, you need to be ready to service a route when you’re selling a ticket and collecting revenue on it. Now, one of the things that I’ve talked to the airlines about after Memorial Day was realistic scheduling.

And we did see several airlines take steps to cut back on scheduled flights. So that they knew that the flights they do have on the schedule, the tickets they are selling, they’re going to better be able to support. That’s an example of a kind of solution that’s going to play a role, getting through the short to medium term. Medium to long term, we need to accelerate training and pilot recruitment. That’s something else that some airlines are beginning to do in a way that I think is very encouraging. But we got a long way to go. And in the end, it’s going to be about the results.

SCHEIMER: Do you think that the airlines have knowingly scheduled flights that they knew they did not have the staff to operate this summer?

BUTTIGIEG: So that’s a difficult thing to be able to determine from the outside looking in. But if they have, and if that’s ever proven, then our Consumer Protection Department’s going to have something to say about that. In the meantime, where we have caught airlines, for example, failing to provide refunds, where people are entitled to refunds for canceled flights, we’re acting on that.

We actually used our enforcement powers to secure the largest fines ever for this sort of thing, a few months ago. And we’ll continue using those powers when we need to. But look, we want to be collaborative here. We don’t want to be using our enforcement powers. We want people to just get where they need to go conveniently. But if there is an issue with unfair practices, we’re going to act. It’s why we have that consumer protection office to begin with.

SCHEIMER: You mentioned the pilot shortage, which, you know, we’ve talked to airline pilots and industry folks who are saying, you know, this has been decades in the making, exacerbated by elements of the pandemic, like you mentioned, the early retirements. There’s a couple of fixes that folks are proposing, raising the pilot retirement age, lowering number of pilot training hours to, you know, accelerate and extend that gap before even further shortages come up. Does the Department of Transportation, you know, support any of those measures?

BUTTIGIEG: So I’m a lot more interested in raising the bar on pay and working conditions than anything that could lower the bar on standards and training. Especially because those standards are there for safety reasons. But what we have seen is some regional carriers stepping up and increasing the pay for pilots.

And look, frankly, I think a lot of Americans would be shocked if they knew how little the more junior regional pilots were being paid. I think when you see that pay come more in line with the expectations and the options that those qualified pilots have, you’re going to see improvements coming out of that. And by the way, my department is offering support for things like curriculum development for aviation in high schools and college to help build up that pipeline. That the airlines ultimately need to then turn to, to recruit, train and retain great air crews.

SCHEIMER: Do you have any next conversations scheduled with airline executives to talk about how things are going?

BUTTIGIEG: So with everything that’s gone on this year, I’ve formed a habit of just picking up the phone in addition to formal meetings. Again, to recognize when they do the right thing, and to make clear what we’ll do if they fail to meet their responsibilities. We’re going to continue to be putting airlines on notice about what they’ve got to do to treat passengers.

We’re looking at some more rulemaking that will help everybody from families with children, to passengers with disabilities. But also want to work proactively and collaboratively on things like making sure the air traffic control system is working in a in an efficient way, and seamlessly integrating with what the airlines are doing operationally.

Anything else that can help. The bottom line is about making sure people get where they need to be conveniently and affordably. And when an issue does come up, that you get it resolved, that you get treated well. And of course, this is another issue that we’re taking a close look at right now. You can get somebody on the phone. So that if a delay or cancellation could not be avoided, at the very least, don’t make somebody wait 8 hours to talk to someone about it.

SCHEIMER: Secretary, just one last question. There have been some airline executives who have blamed some of the delays and cancellations the past couple of months on staffing shortages at the FAA. Do you think that the FAA has some blame to take for the headaches of summer travel?

BUTTIGIEG: So I want to be clear that FAA staffing issues do not explain the majority of cancellations or delays in the system. But like any organization, FAA was impacted by the pandemic. As you can imagine, environments like training and air traffic control don’t lend themselves to remote work, or social distancing very well. And they’re working through some issues that we’re also in close communication with the airlines about how to sort out, repositioning resources where needed.

SCHEIMER: Well, thank you so much, Secretary, for taking the time to talk to On Point. We really appreciate it.

BUTTIGIEG: Sure thing. Good to be with you.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That was On Point senior editor Dorey Scheimer with extended interviews with Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Context: Guest Bill McGee On What The Department Of Transportation Could Do To Create Transparency In The Airline Industry

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Is there anything on this particular issue about transparency that government, specifically Secretary Pete Buttigieg, could do?

BILL McGEE: Absolutely. There’s no question. I mean, you and I don’t know what goes on behind the screen. None of us do. As I said, this is a very opaque industry. They’re opaque about pricing. They’re opaque about customer service. They’re even opaque in their contracts of carriage on what they’ll do for you if there is a problem such as a delay. Well, Pete Buttigieg has authority and power that we don’t have. He has the ability to call the airlines in and ask them to open their books and explain what’s going on.

I mean, we really need to boil this down and say, What’s happening? In fact, airlines are scheduling flights. They’re putting flights into reservation systems. Consumers are going out and booking those flights, whether it’s directly through the airline, by phone, online, through a travel agent, through Expedia, Orbitz, what have you. And they are paying money. They’re having the credit card swiped. Money is being taken out of their accounts. It’s being put into the airlines coffers. They’re earning interest on it. And there is clearly reasonable doubt that all of these flights can be operated.

Now, that’s a very serious charge. To be offering a product for sale and taking money for it, and not being able to provide it. That’s what Pete Buttigieg has to do. He has to bring them to task for this and get the truth out of them. Because the airlines, every time you turn around, you see another media interview in which an airline representative or one of their lobbyists starts talking about weather and air traffic control.

I’m an FAA licensed aircraft dispatcher. I worked in airline flight operations management. I can tell you there are always going to be problems with weather and air traffic control. And this time of year, with all of the hubs that we have in the Sun Belt, in Dallas, and Atlanta and Miami, etc., Phoenix, of course, there are going to be thunderstorms and other weather issues that affect flight cancellations, but that is not what we’re talking about in the summer of 2022.

What we are looking at this year are circumstances that are way beyond weather and air traffic control, and it’s incumbent upon Secretary Buttigieg to force them to be truthful. And then we can start talking about solutions. People could be asking me, When are things going to get better? I don’t see how they’re going to get better at all if … we’re not even truthful about what the root causes are.

CHAKRABARTI: What you’re saying, though, is that the secretary of Transportation has the authority to demand that transparency, to get that data from the airlines.

McGEE: No question. There’s no question whatsoever. … This needs to be put in context. He is the only sheriff for the airline industry. I won’t get into a long history lesson, but it’s critical to know that in 1978, when the airline industry was deregulated in the United States, a position was included in the Deregulation Act called federal preemption. And what that meant was that the states have virtually no authority over the airline industry.

Now, this makes the airlines, unlike virtually every other consumer facing industry in the United States, if you have a problem with any company, you can sue in a state court. A state attorney general can take action against a company. A state legislature can pass laws for that state. That’s not possible in the airlines. In the airlines, everything is on the federal level. So what are we left with? We’re left with Congress. Well, okay. It’s clear that there are certain issues there, politically and time factors with Congress acting.

And we’re left with the secretary of transportation. So what we have is basically a benevolent dictatorship. I mean, this is not how democracy is supposed to work. And when the secretary of transportation fails to act, we’ve now had two consecutive secretaries of transportation who have not stood up and fought for consumers.

One was Elaine Chao under President Trump, and now 18 months in, Pete Buttigieg under President Biden. He has failed to act on a whole host of issues that I and other consumer advocates have spoken directly to him about. He’s been in office for 18 months. He has not taken action at all on the refunds that are still outstanding. Senator Markey estimates between $10 billion and $15 billion, dating back to the early days of COVID. And he has not gotten this cancellation situation under control. That’s just two of many issues.

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