Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg continues to disappoint, time and time again.
Many Chances To Define Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s Tenure
The last few weeks have provided a few opportunities for Depart of Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, to out his stamp on its his tenure in the role. Live And Let’s Fly has been consistently optimistic about the Secretary since his appointment, hopeful for a key win.
President Biden announced his intention to eliminate junk travel costs for consumers by banning resort fees in his state of the union address. This is an absolute layup for the Secretary. The only constituency that enjoys resort fees is the hotel chains and proprietors that charge them. They are innately dubious legally as FTC compliance of including the whole cost of a stay in pricing is United States law.
This is the lowest of low-hanging fruit. This issue is not controversial amongst voters and there’s no such thing as a Big Hotel lobby; Marriott and Hilton spent just $2.2MM combined in 2022 on lobbying.
The best part for the Secretary is that he probably doesn’t have enough power in his mandate to actually implement and enforce the outright elimination of resort fees, so it costs him nothing to be loud on the issue, supportive of the President, and of citizens.
He’s been essentially mum on the issue.
Train Derailment: East Palestine, Ohio
Eerily mirroring the recent Netflix film, White Noise, a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio – coincidentally near where portions of the movie were shot – spilled chemicals and toxins into the environment, just as in the film.
The Secretary was silent on the spill for a shocking ten days and has regreted his silence on the matter.
“I was taking pains to respect the role that I have, the role that I don’t have — but that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening,” – Politico
The United States transportation systems, including rail, fall under the Secretary’s purview. The Environmental Protection Agency is an independent agency.
The Secretary could have not only appeared sooner but taken a heavier hand with rail operators,
“Norfolk Southern and the other freight rail companies need to stop fighting us every time we try to do a regulation,” Buttigieg told reporters. – VOA
It’s openly naive to ask any industry to embrace reforms that no doubt force businesses to add cost, time, and difficulty to its business practice. Those sorts of reforms need to be dictated not suggested.
Buttigieg’s East Palestine trip allowed him to tour the site, the “twisted metal” and wreckage of train cars and toxic chemicals. It was an opportunity to address rail safety and the long-term approach to moving hazardous chemicals in rail cars. The industry was quick to point out that 99.9% of hazardous chemical deliveries arrive at their destination without incident and that accidents are down 55% since 2012.
FAA System Issues
About six weeks ago, the FAA’s NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) system failed. Preliminary reports suggested that it was due to a database issue by a contractor but no official report has yet been issued. More than anything else, this underscored the fragile nature of the US aerospace technology infrastructure.
“Buttigieg told Reuters in an interview that President Joe Biden’s administration plans to seek from Congress “the resources needed to accelerate these system changes” at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He said it was important to look beyond the recent outage that snarled more than 11,000 flights.
“The broader context is aging systems and growing demand. I don’t want this to be ‘whack-a-mole’ where we figured out one flavor of problem on one system… only to face another one later on.” – Reuters
Southwest Critical System Failure
At the end of 2022, Southwest Airlines faced a number of issues beginning with a weather disaster in Denver, labor strife, then computer issues that failed to communicate which assets were available and left the nation’s largest domestic carrier canceling 66% of flights during the busiest travel season on record.
Opportunity Abounds For Success, Failure
Secretary Buttigieg could have used each of these opportunities to create a lasting impact for US Consumers and the businesses that serve the transportation sector. The Secretary in no way was responsible for the Southwest meltdown but what an opportunity to push for a passenger Bill of Rights and make efforts for Congress to write similar legislation to the EU rules that put passengers in control.
There’s no question that the FAA systems issue was mostly isolated and rare, but once again, the nation turns to the leader of the DoT and the answer is to be slow and careful.
Visiting East Palestine Thursday, the Secretary could have paved the way to expedite infrastructure funds and plans for railways but instead, the news was focused on how long it took Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to visit East Palestine, Ohio. He could have used the chance to beef up security on the trains carrying potentially dangerous chemicals, but he instead turned the focus to Norfolk Southern. The National Transportation Safety Board will have to complete its investigation into the crash likely involving wheel bearings but the moment will pass to get the entire country (and congress) behind real action.
The Secretary cannot enact laws, nor dish out punishment but it can make enough noise that something gets done. And there are opportunities for the head of the Department of Transportation to act. For example, enforcing disclosure of resort fees in the total price of a hotel is a law that’s on the books, and making sure that hotels and resorts adhere to it is something he could be stricter on, even if prior interpretation has allowed for the gray area we now encounter.
It took four days to respond to the Southwest issue publicly, and weeks to visit the crash site and meet with residents of East Palestine (just 43 miles from my front door.)
United Airlines is so emboldened by the complete inaction of Sec. Buttigieg that it established a mistake fare policy allowing it to not only cancel those legally sold fares as it sees fit, but punish consumers for buying tickets it mistakenly priced. This flies in the face of CFR 399.88, a protection the Department put in place to protect consumers from airlines which it later decided to no longer enforce. With a pen stroke, Buttigieg could put that rule back into place but United is so sure that he won’t that they paid lawyers to rewrite its contract of carriage “effective immediately.”
So many of these issues are solvable whether through the nation’s largest infrastructure bill since the New Deal, enforcing policies already approved, or just deciding to act when events arise. As my parents would say, “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.”
What do you think? Has Secretary Buttigieg failed to act? Should he be more responsive? Are you satisfied with his measured approach?