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Buttigieg: ‘Transparency Makes a Difference’ for Airlines’ Summer Success

After winter chaos, carriers say steps are in place; DOT is watching

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Travelers and the Department of Transportation are watching how airlines perform this summer in the wake of the holiday travel chaos where passengers were stranded at airports.
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What can airline travelers expect during the busy summer travel season?

Hopefully, not a repeat of the holiday travel season, says Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

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Thanksgiving 2022 through New Year’s Day 2023 was nothing short of a nightmare for airlines and passengers alike. A winter storm paralyzed the country, canceling and delaying almost 10,000 flights on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone. In addition, there was not enough personnel to meet the increased passenger loads in the aftermath of the pandemic, and coupled with the storms, air travel was grounded.

In an exclusive Zoom interview with AARP, Buttigieg says the airlines better be ready for the summer travel crush.

“The bottom line is any time an airline is accepting passenger’s money in exchange for a ticket, they have to be ready to back that ticket up and service the ticket that they are selling,” Buttigieg says. “That means having every part of their system ready to take care of that passenger: to have adequate staffing, good equipment and realistic schedules to back up that flight.”

Southwest Airlines was criticized for not having adequate staffing and for using an archaic reservation system during the 2022 holiday season. Between Dec. 20 and Dec. 29, 2022, more than 16,700 Southwest flights were canceled, stranding 2 million travelers.

Reached for a comment about Southwest Airlines’ preparedness for the summer travel season, spokesperson Chris Perry referenced the airline’s travel disruption action plan.

“We’ve been very transparent about our response to December’s operational disruption, providing a press release outlining the highlights of our tactical action plan, as well as creating a customer-facing micro site that explains in further detail the work that was already underway and also planned to bolster our operations,” Perry says.

American Airlines, which canceled more than 450 flights shortly before Christmas, claimed that they handled the winter storm and the ensuing logjam of luggage and stranded passengers and crew efficiently, and that they’re prepared for the summer crush.

“We work very closely with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and DOT and remain in constant communication about peak travel season,” says Ethan Klapper, a spokesperson for American Airlines.

When asked what American was doing to ensure smooth traveling this summer, Klapper pointed to a podcast produced internally for American Airlines employees, where Julie Rath, senior vice president of airport operations, boasted about the airline’s response to pre-Christmas travel snarls.

“What you saw with those storms,” Rath said on the podcast, “is you saw us go into the storm with a great plan to make sure that we execute during the plan but right away we get a team focused on the recovery and coming out of the storm before the weather even occurs.”

Rath claims in the podcast that American is ready for peak summer travel.

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“We have the resources in place, we have the plan, and we are ready to execute for a great summer.”

But Buttigieg and the DOT want to ensure that all the airlines are responsible to the public.

“As a watchdog, it’s not my job to know what’s in their hearts,” Buttigieg says. “It’s our job to make sure that they’re complying. We do have authorities to work with on issues like when there’s a suspicion of unrealistic scheduling, deliberately unrealistic scheduling, we can investigate. We’re actually doing that right now in certain cases.”

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Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg appears at the White House on Monday, May 8, 2023, to discuss the administration’s new proposal to hold the airlines accountable to consumers.
Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting company, says that part of the reason the airlines are reticent to discuss changes they made in the wake of the winter 2022 systems meltdown (he says that the only real meltdown was Southwest, which has updated their software), is because there wasn’t anything the airlines could do. Weather was the main culprit, so he has no problem assuring the public that summer travel won’t be more inconvenient than any other day of travel.

“We’re back to where we were in 2019 in terms of passenger load,” Boyd says. “That means that airplanes are 80 percent full no matter what time of year. It’s not like we have this huge crush of people over the summer like we have specifically for Christmas and Thanksgiving. The airlines are full all the time now and Southwest upgraded its system to handle the pre-pandemic number of travelers.”

Frontier Airlines has pledged to do better. Ranking eighth out of 10 airlines in 2022 for on-time performance, Frontier says it is laser-focused on stepping up its game for summer.

“We have worked on our summer schedule design to reduce the possibility of operational disruptions,” says Daniel Shurz, Frontier’s senior vice president, commercial. “Given the anticipated high volume of travelers, consumers are well advised to arrive extra early and to take some time to familiarize themselves with their airline’s policies for required check-in and gate arrival times.”

Buttigieg says that if airlines would be more forthcoming with information – including when they know there will be delays because of human error as well as “force majeure” (an act of God) – there would not be a need for the stepped-up government regulations of airlines.

“Transparency makes a difference,” he says. “It’s not all about regulation enforcement. There’s also a lot to be said for just making sure passengers understand airlines’ performance and airlines’ commitments. And that’s what the [DOT] dashboard has been about, and I’ve been really grateful to see us getting results just on the strength of the dashboard alone.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation created a quick-view dashboard to provide access to information about services, such as meals, hotel accommodations and rebooking passengers, that U.S. airlines provide in the wake of cancellations or delays that carriers control. The aim is to help passengers navigate the inconvenience when the cause of a cancellation or delay was due to circumstances within the airline’s control.

On May 8, the department updated the dashboard to include more details about what compensation, if any, airlines will guarantee to travelers if the airline is the cause of the delay or cancellation.

During a news conference, President Joe Biden said, “So, if it’s the airline’s fault and your flight was canceled or delayed, you can check the dashboard to see how the airline should be compensating you, like rebooking a flight or accommodating your hotel room or — and your meals.” He noted the expanded website is FlightRights.gov.

Buttigieg advises passengers to use the dashboard before booking summer travel to help with their planning, and for advice on what to do should the airlines – and not weather – cause a delay.

“Before you buy a ticket, take a look at the information we publish about how different airlines treat you and what the different airlines will promise to do because not every airline is alike,” he says. “Secondly, once you have booked a ticket and you’re committed to a certain airline, know your rights so that if you do run into one of these situations, you can get your money back, get your meals and hotels, get your rebooking, whatever it is that will make the biggest difference for you, and have that in your hip pocket so you can assert those rights. And if for some reason airlines don’t meet their obligation to you, we will back you up.”

Boyd acknowledges that adjustments can be made on a federal level to help streamline delays – like more air traffic controllers with better training – but he says that air travel has become inconvenient and fraught with anxiety over the years, and it’s likely going to stay that way. As a result, it is incumbent on the passenger to be prepared.

“Rest assured, travel this summer will be just as inconvenient as it’s been on any other day of the week,” Boyd says. “My advice is to book your seat early, get to the airport early and enjoy the trip. Other than weather delays and the standard delays that can happen for mechanical, this summer won’t be any more inconvenient than usual.”​

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