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DOT Secretary Buttigieg wants to hold airlines accountable for delays, cancellations

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

If you have any upcoming travel plans that involve an airplane, you may be holding your breath As you think of all the recent flight delays and cancellations. Millions of Americans have gotten stuck in airports over the past year, and many of them got little or no compensation. Today President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg proposed new rules that would require airlines to compensate passengers beyond a ticket refund for what are being called significant controllable delays or cancellations. I spoke with Buttigieg earlier today and asked him about these proposed changes.

Under these new rules, what could passengers get in the future that they're not getting now if their flight is delayed or canceled?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, right now, if your flight gets canceled, you're entitled to a refund of the airfare. But there's nothing requiring airlines to compensate you for the inconvenience and other costs associated with having a major delay or a cancellation that is the fault of the airline. We're proposing requirements that would change that. This could mean compensation in addition to amenities or refunds for the ticket itself, could include further accommodations if you're delayed or stuck and requirements around customer service. We've also launched an expanded dashboard at flightrights.gov. This is helping you get a sense of what you can expect from airlines right now, even as we're working to raise the bar on what's going to be required in the future.

PFEIFFER: So going back to compensation, could this mean if you have to get your own hotel, pay for a meal, get a cab or an Uber or a Lyft, these could be charged to the airline?

BUTTIGIEG: That's right. Now, I'll say that we've already seen a number of gains in this regard compared to about a year ago when there were no formal or enforceable agreements around that. We've posted that dashboard. And with that transparency, came more motivation for airlines to do the right thing. So a number of them have filed customer service plans with us, saying that they'll at least take care of a meal or ground transportation or rebooking, and we can enforce that. But that's still only based on them making a commitment to do that. We think that the right way forward is to establish requirements across the board so that any passenger flying on an airline in the U.S. knows what they can expect and knows that the airline can't change the rules on them.

PFEIFFER: Could a passenger get cash, some kind of currency beyond the fare refund?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, that's exactly what we are looking at proposing here. Look. There are places where this is already routine. In Europe and Canada, there are rules where if you get severely delayed and it's the airline's fault, you get some kind of cash compensation. That's the kind of thing that there's been a lot of interest in here in the U.S. and exactly what we want this rule to look at.

PFEIFFER: I assume some airlines count on passengers not knowing their rights, so they might not offer passengers compensation unless the passenger specifically asks for it. Under your new rules, will passengers automatically get compensated? Or they'll have to take the initiative?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, that's part of something that we're working to develop with this rule which would be new. But I think that is a concern. Often we see that airlines will start out by saying, well, we'll give you a few thousand miles. And passengers might not know that, you know, that could only be worth maybe 10 or 20 bucks when, in fact, they're entitled to hundreds if they ask for it. We want to make that easier. We don't want you to have to fight for it. And that's what this dashboard is about. We want to make sure that if you're getting ready to book a ticket, you know which airlines are going to take care of you in which ways. And after you get that ticket, you know how to how to assert your rights. And I think making more of that automatic is an important part of that. It shouldn't be on you to navigate DOT rules or go through the fine print of customer service agreements in order to get what you are owed as a passenger.

PFEIFFER: The airlines have blamed some of these problems on things like staffing shortages, technology outages, of course, weather. But they've also blamed the FAA for staffing and technical issues. That's an agency under your purview. What have you done, if anything, to try to make improvements to the FAA's operations?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, even the airlines' own industry statistics show that FAA issues and air traffic control is not responsible for most of these delays. But any time we see an indication that it could be, that's something that's a real concern. And it's why we have been acting both to modernize FAA systems and to hire more air traffic controllers, bringing on 1,500 additional controllers this year. And the president's budget for fiscal year '24 proposes resources to bring in another 1,800 controllers. I do have to say, though, in the midst of this negotiation over the budget, that what House Republicans passed a few days ago would really stop us in our tracks and would actually reduce our ability to staff these air traffic control towers, lead to furloughs at the FAA, even shut some towers down at the exact moment when it's abundantly clear that we need to do more, not less, to support our air traffic control system.

PFEIFFER: I'm sure you've heard this term revenge travel - people who weren't able to travel during the pandemic making up for lost time. And even more Americans are expected to travel this summer than last summer. How soon do you think people can expect any notable change in that travel experience?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, last year, when we put up the first version of this consumer protection dashboard, we went from none of the airlines formally offering commitments around things like vouchers and rebooking to almost all of them doing it. We saw that change in a matter of days. So we do see that when they have the right incentives, they can respond quickly. But let's be honest here. The system is under a lot of pressure, the entire system. So far this year, performance has been better. The preliminary data show each month so far this year, cancellation rates below 2%. That is great news. But we're not out of the woods. It's going to take more work to make sure that there is a good travel summer for passengers and that we're on a good trajectory for the long-term future.

PFEIFFER: Even before the pandemic, many passengers just felt poorly treated by airlines. What does it say to you that it's taken you to push them to try to get this kind of basic customer service?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think at the end of the day, we need to make sure through public policy that these companies, airlines, have the right rules and the right incentive to do the right thing instead of just hoping that they'll do it on their own. Now, I will say not all airlines are alike. You can go to our website and see green check marks and red X's airline by airline in terms of what they're going to offer. You know, before COVID, an extraordinary amount of money went to stock buybacks at these airlines. We're looking to them to invest in their systems, invest in passengers. And where they're not doing the right thing on their own, we're going to continue to use a three-legged stool - enforcement, rules and transparency - to continue pushing things in the right direction.

PFEIFFER: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thank you for your time.

BUTTIGIEG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.