“Mayor” Pete Buttigieg, Transportation Secretary has a solution to stave off summer travel woes and he shared it with airline executives this week. But its timeliness is in question.
Sec. Buttigieg Meets With Airline Executives
Following an abysmal unofficial start to summer on Memorial Day weekend, the Department of Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, called a meeting with airline executives to address transportation woes in the world’s largest air travel market. In essence, he asked them to curtail their “ambitious” summer schedules to limit cancellations.
“The secretary asked airlines what steps they were taking to ensure that disruptions that occurred over Memorial Day weren’t repeated during July 4 weekend and the rest of the summer, the person said. Buttigieg also pushed airlines to improve customer service so that passengers can rebook quickly, the person said, describing the call as “productive and collaborative.”
“The Thursday meeting came after Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) earlier this month wrote to U.S. airlines’ industry group, Airlines for America, pressing for more information about disruptions over Memorial Day weekend.” – CNBC
The meeting took place on June 16th, 2022.
Meeting with airline executives halfway through June to address summer travel concerns seems like a shockingly late time to address the challenges. There’s last minute and then there’s whatever this is. The horse has very much already left the barn. Though there is still time to repair issues before the July 4th holiday, it’s fairly short, and fewer flights isn’t the answer.
The summer is already in full swing. Passengers and airlines have booked well through August. Changes now would adversely affect both passengers and carriers whereas asking airlines to reduce their schedules for fall and winter would allow both parties to plan better for the new schedule.
It also comes late from a perspective that the airlines holding 52.4% of the US domestic market share (based on full 2021 numbers) already trimmed their schedules: Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, SkyWest, Southwest, and Spirit. That excludes the long-haul pullback American Airlines already exercised due to fleet limitations (waiting on 787s) and market adjustments (Hong Kong, Asia schedule reductions.) The proposed solution is for all airlines to reduce their schedules including the ones that have already taken that measure. Sounds fair and well reasoned.
A Better Plan
I had such high hopes for the Secretary in this role. Without getting too political, I had confidence that “Mayor Pete” could affect real change when President Biden appointed the Rhodes Scholar, a Harvard University graduate that spent years as an officer in the Navy Reserve. I, for one, could forgive him for not doing more based on the challenges he faced when he came into office including (but not limited to):
- COVID restrictions, and moving targets
- The travel industry turned upside down
- Supply chain woes
- A trucker strike
- Record oil prices
- Inflation distressing the market further
That said, there are other options rather than waiting until summer flights are scheduled and booked by passengers to suggest a lighter flight load. One concept is that he could endorse an adjustment to the mandatory retirement age for pilots. That would provide some immediate relief though it would take an act of Congress to enact. A recommendation from the Secretary for a moratorium on the rule endorsed by the FAA that reports to Buttigieg’s DOT could go a long way to alleviating some of the current stress levels.
The Secretary might also consider strengthening the rules of passenger protections which may force airlines to behave differently. By advancing policy changes and orders that allow for similar protections to those of European counterparts, airlines would have to deliver transportation services better.
The Department could also address things like resort fees and their blatant disregard for the rules around marketing the price of hotel rooms. That would have a material effect on travelers during this busy season and while it may not solve air traffic woes, it would ease some of the financial burdens that have compounded a frustrating peak travel season.
The senators that requested airline executives sit down with the Secretary likely have more power to effect change on the matter anyway. After all, a bill from Congress that enacts penalties for airlines, or could create a passenger bill of rights would do more to improve passenger experience than a frank conversation with the Secretary.
Sec. Buttigieg is attempting to do something about the current issues plaguing the busy peak travel season but asking airlines who have already cut their schedule to cut further is unreasonable. To ask for those changes while already well into the summer is even more absurd. I would rather that the DOT did something about the current flawed state of affairs. But I don’t think it’s fair to ask airlines facing ever-climbing costs, chiefly among them fuel, to forego potential profit and shoulder the customer service issues. That said, the government does have levers left to pull that will serve its ends yet it hasn’t or won’t pull them.
What do you think? Was the meeting between Pete Buttigieg, Transportation Secretary, and the airlines too late? Should the airlines scale back operations? If so, what about those that already have?