Department of Transportation figures for the first half of 2022 indicate that nearly a quarter (24%) of all domestic airline flights in the United States were delayed and more than 3% of them were canceled. This situation has left many would-be passengers seeing red and demanding that the government do something about it. The situation was serious enough to stir Mayor Pete Buttigieg (our Transportation Secretary because he’s always “really liked cars”) from whatever he normally does to occupy his time and address the problem. During a recent appearance on NBC he said to the airlines “you’ve got to make it easier for passengers to understand their rights. And you’ve got to support passengers when they experience delays or cancellations.” If they fail to do so, the DOT may impose a “rule change.” So what solution does Buttigieg have in mind? His department is setting up a website, which will clearly straighten everything out.
After a punishing summer for air travelers who have seen delayed and canceled flights, the federal government is taking additional steps to help beleaguered passengers.
The Department of Transportation is telling the airlines that they need to come up with their own improvements for customer service or the agency will proceed with a plan to order a rule change.
The DOT is also creating a website, eyed for a launch two weeks from now, that they hope will easily show each airline’s policies regarding cancellations and delays.
To give credit where due, the airlines are frequently terrible about making alternate arrangements for travelers and offering refunds for canceled flights, as we’ve discussed here previously. A website to help travelers understand both their rights and the policies of the various airlines would not be a terrible idea, though it’s not clear that the DOT can force them to change their policies. But they might if they have the government shining a bright light on them and painting them as the bad guys.
But with all of that said, this website is only going to be of use to people after the problem has occurred. Buttigieg is dealing with a customer service issue here that crops up after flights are canceled or delayed. This doesn’t do a thing to address the underlying reasons why there are so many cancellations and delays.
Buttigieg is further demanding fewer delays and cancellations. He blames the airline industry for overbooking flights and providing confusing rules regarding refunds and alternate accommodations. That may be true also. The airlines certainly overbook flights to ensure that every seat is filled to maximize their profits. But that’s only one factor in a far more complex problem.
The airlines continue to blame a lack of pilots for these problems. That’s definitely a big factor, but it’s also a problem of the airlines’ own creation. They took huge government payments as part of COVID relief to keep their people employed and ready to go when normal travel resumed. But they kept the money while providing huge incentives to get pilots to retire or resign rather than keeping them on the payroll and then proceeded with layoffs after the pandemic moratoriums expired. It will take years to return to normal staffing levels of qualified pilots.
And that’s part of the problem with what Mayor Pete is trying to do. I understand that he very much wants to make it look like the Biden administration is “doing something” about the air travel mess we’re seeing. But you can’t make more pilots suddenly appear by passing a “rule change” at the DOT. That’s like “fighting climate change” by having Congress pass a new law making it illegal for the temperature to rise above 90 degrees. It’s just not going to work.
The best we could probably do at this point would be to order a full review of all of the staffing decisions made by the major airlines during the pandemic. If they misused their COVID relief funds, they should be forced to repay that money. And doing so would make an example of them so we might not run into the same problem again when the next global pandemic blows into town. (And no, monkeypox. You don’t count.)