Ironically, the day after US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with airline executives about the massive number of recent flight disruptions and cancellations, his own flight was cancelled, forcing him to travel from Washington, DC, to New York.
This underscores the frustration of airline passengers. Ready and eager to finally travel as COVID-19 fears have subsided, passengers are finding themselves victims of overbookings, delays and cancellations as airlines try to recoup lost revenue despite often severe staff shortages which amplify the disturbances.
As Buttigieg told The Associated Press, “It happens to a lot of people, and that’s exactly why we’re paying close attention to what can be done and how to make sure the airlines deliver.”
The options, unfortunately, appear limited, although Buttigieg has said he is ready to take enforcement action against airlines that are underperforming in customer service.
After a Memorial Day weekend marked by thousands of flight cancellations across the country – including 9% of Delta’s total flight operations – Allison Ausband, Delta’s manager, explained that “weather control and air traffic, supplier staffing, rising COVID case rates contributing to over–unscheduled planned absences…result in an operation that is not always up to the standards Delta has set….”
We understood. Everything has been more difficult since the start of the pandemic. Airlines have been hit hard by a shortage of pilots, who can be particularly difficult to replace given high training demands. It takes months to hire and train a pilot to meet federal safety standards.
Buttigieg urged airlines to hire more customer service staff to book flights. But it is useless if there are no available flights for rebooking.
Earlier this month, pilots staged several protests against being forced to work a record number of overtime hours, with some holding signs reading: “If I look tired, it’s because I am.”
We recognize the difficult situation in which the airlines find themselves. Short of income during the worst of the pandemic, they urged many pilots to retire early. Now they are understaffed to keep up with increased consumer demand.
Nevertheless, it’s time to take stock when disruptions become the norm instead of the exception. Passengers in European Union countries have had broad consumer protections in place since 2004. These include compensation when airlines delay or cancel a flight, as well as meals and hotel stays in the event of a delay. of one night.
By contrast, the poor treatment of airline passengers in the United States is an old story that gets worse. As early as 2010, Senator Amy Klobuchar co-sponsored a passenger bill of rights that called for protections so basic you hardly thought they needed to be spelled out. The new rules required airlines to provide passengers with food, water and toilet facilities during extended tarmac delays and limited the amount of time they could be forced to occupy a plane to three hours. It came after a series of horrific stories of passengers being trapped on planes for hours waiting for clearance to take off.
Airlines can’t control the weather, but what’s stopping them from booking a hotel for otherwise stranded passengers? Earlier this month, dozens of Delta passengers were stranded at Atlanta airport, including a disabled US military veteran who said he had to sleep on the airport floor overnight and a young mother whose 11-month-old daughter lacked nappies and formula. .
Consumers continue to have too few air travel rights. As transport secretary, Buttigieg can issue fines to airlines that continue to experience massive disruptions. But before he does, he said he wanted to see what happens over the July 4 weekend and the rest of the summer.
We urge Buttigieg to keep the pressure on airline executives to do better.