TTrade Secretary Pete Buttigieg is once again being touted as a presidential candidate. And that raised a number of questions about what he’s doing to improve transportation in the United States right now in this job.
At Vox Media’s Code conference, held at the Beverly Hilton in September, Buttigieg was asked about his future aspirations as president. “Who knows?” said the transport minister. He then added, “I think you’re running for office because you notice something about the office and something about yourself and something about the moment that adds up.”
The comment immediately sparked a wave of headlines about Buttigieg’s presidential aspirations in 2024 and beyond.
Buttigieg ticks many boxes for Democrats. Relatively young at 40, he is gay, articulate and has shown that he can connect with many of the party’s progressive voters.
His political instincts were spot on. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, managed to convert an early strong showing in the Democratic primary combined with a clutch endorsement from Joe Biden into a significant Cabinet position.
However, observers do not believe that he excelled in this job.
Take air travel, which is largely the responsibility of Buttigieg as chief executive of the Federal Aviation Administration. Ticket prices have skyrocketed earlier this year and have only gradually come down, and the number of canceled flights has angered many passengers.
Matt Stoller, research director for the American Economic Liberties Project, is usually skeptical of big business practices. In this case, he is equally skeptical of the airlines’ supreme regulator.
One tool that transportation secretaries can use to take airlines down is called an aviation enforcement order, and it can carry significant fines.
“Trump Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao issued just 6 aviation enforcement orders in 2020, her final year, a record low,” Stoller wrote in August. “How many did Buttigieg spend in 2021? Only 4. This year? So far he has exhibited … 3. He just doesn’t regulate the industry and it shows.”
Gary Leff is the author of the influential website View From the Wing. While not necessarily in line with Stoller’s general political stance, they agree that many of the problems with domestic air travel are related to poor decisions by US airlines.
“That [airlines are] understaffed because – despite government bailouts to ensure they kept their staff and ready to fly when customers returned – they didn’t keep their full staff and ready to fly when customers returned,” Leff said Washington Examiner so far. “They took the bailout and encouraged early retirement and threatened layoffs to fill a gap in the bailout to urge people to ‘voluntarily’ leave.”
Additionally, outside of the Beltway and progressive circles, there seems to be genuine anger at how airlines are treating passengers, coupled with a general agreement that Buttigieg is unlikely to do much about it.
That skepticism was reflected in a letter signed by a bipartisan group of 38 attorneys general to Congress in late August, stating: “Over the past several years, our offices have received thousands of complaints from outraged air passengers about airline customer service — including about systematic failure to provide necessary credit to those who have lost travel opportunities during the pandemic.”
This vast majority of state attorneys asked Congress to “pass legislation that would authorize the attorneys general” — that is, themselves — “to enforce our state and federal consumer protection laws for the airline industry.”
The attorney general made some noise about enforcement being a bipartisan issue, but then hinted that Buttigieg most likely won’t be part of the solution. In fact, they went so far as to urge Congress to “consider shifting the agency responsible for federal investigations into patron complaints” to a federal agency that will likely actually do something about it, “like the U.S. Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission.” ”
Buttigieg had done a number of things to try to stop the Attorney General from doing so. He wrote a sternly worded letter to the airlines, and in interviews he played up the fact that he imposed a “record fine” on an airline.
But Stoller points out there’s more to this “record-breaking” story. Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation fined Air Canada “$2 million … for openly saying it will not comply with the law” in 2021 over issuing refunds for canceled flights.
The original amount of the fine was more than ten times higher. However, not long “after announcing an amount of $25 million and making headlines for being ‘tough,’ the DOT then negotiated $2 million in cash owed and only half of that immediately (the rest after a year) “.
“The amount was so small that Air Canada didn’t have to report the fine to investors,” he said. “Yet Buttigieg brags on TV about his record airline penalties. He also sternly said they had completed 10 separate investigations into refunds, without mentioning that there had been no findings from those investigations.
It’s possible the airlines will see the transport minister as essentially toothless. In June, Buttigieg asked several airline chiefs why so many flights were being cancelled. His own flight was canceled the next day. He had to drive from Washington DC to New York City.
However, Buttigieg has taken two initiatives that could have a long-term impact on air travel. The first was a draft rule issued in August that would force airlines to immediately issue cash refunds to travelers whose flights have been canceled and potentially give them the opportunity to sue if they are not.
American perspective Editor Robert Kuttner criticizes this approach. “It sounds great,” he concedes, “but in practice, the rule could actually give airlines two more years to continue their anti-consumer behavior.” Beyond that, Kuttner added, the rule “would do nothing to help airlines to repay the approximately $10 billion still owed to consumers for canceled flights since the pandemic began in 2020.”
The second initiative was dropped the day after the attorneys general wrote. On September 1st, the DOT launched the Airline Customer Service Dashboard on its own website. The dashboard gives travelers a list of things each airline has committed to in the event of “manageable cancellations” and “manageable delays.”
All airlines have pledged to rebook passengers on the same airline at no additional cost in the event of manageable cancellations, the dashboard said.
In addition, Alaska Airlines has promised meals or coupons if people have to wait longer than three hours for a new flight, a free hotel room in case you need to stay overnight because of that cancellation class, and free transportation to and from this hotel. However, Alaska will not transfer you to another airline for free.
American Airlines will do all five of these things. Frontier will just rebook you on one of their flights and give you a meal voucher. On the other hand, many airports stay open all night to accommodate stranded travelers.
The dashboard can be a useful tool for passengers, although many will probably wish their flight hadn’t been canceled in the first place.