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Airline Delays Are Impacting Everyone–Including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg

Just days after Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with airline leaders to ask them about the widespread flight disruptions across the U.S, his own flight was canceled on Friday. In an all too familiar feeling, he opted to drive from Washington, D.C. to New York.

“I thought, this is pretty on the nose,” Buttigieg told NPR. “It illustrates what millions of passengers are concerned about right now.”

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CEOs of the largest U.S. airlines reassured the Biden administration last week that they would learn from staffing mistakes over Memorial Day weekend when about 2,800 flights were canceled, and focus on better performance numbers and customer service over the upcoming July 4th holiday. “Now we’re going to see how those steps measure up,” Buttigieg told The Associated Press.

After two years of a litany of COVID-19 restrictions, travel is back with a vengeance. According to the Transportation Safety Administration, more than 2.4 million people passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports, close to breaking the pandemic-era high record on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2021.

The record would have been broken if airlines had not canceled 1,400 flights because thunderstorms hit parts of the East Coast. Airlines axed more than 1,700 flights a day earlier, according to tracking service FlightAware, which also has a MiseryMap to see delays in real-time.

Senate Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts sent a letter to U.S. airlines’ industry group, Airlines for America, noting that delays and cancellations “are occurring so frequently that they are becoming an almost-expected part of travel.” 

Airports with the most cancellations included Charlotte, North Carolina, a major hub for American Airlines, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty in the New York City area, and Reagan Washington National outside Washington, D.C.

Extreme heat and big storms are significant factors in the disruptions, but airlines have also acknowledged staffing shortages could continue through 2023 as bottled-up travel continues to soar, reports Axios. 

“If you’ve flown on a plane lately, planes are very full, and plane tickets are very expensive,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell said Wednesday at a postmeeting press conference.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) rebuked the airlines for not having a greater sense of urgency in replacing pilots who retired or took leaves of absence in 2020. According to NBC News, Delta Air Line pilots published an open letter to customers expressing their frustration.

“We have been working on our days off, flying a record amount of overtime to help you get to your destination,” the letter states. “At the current rate, by this fall, our pilots will have flown more overtime in 2022 than in the entirety of 2018 and 2019 combined, our busiest years to date.

The Department of Transportation does have the authority to take enforcement action against airlines for failure to meet consumer-protection standards, but Buttigieg doesn’t believe that’s necessary—yet. He is also acutely aware that the Federal Aviation Administration, part of his jurisdiction, lacks personnel, especially in Florida.

“I received a lot of assurances about the steps that [airlines are] taking, and I know that this is being taken very seriously when it comes to all of the measures airlines can take,” Buttigieg told NPR. “On the other hand, I’m in a car right now instead of on a plane, because we weren’t able to get a flight as planned, so these disruptions continue to be a concern.”

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