Dereliction of duty? Buttigieg warned before holidays by own party of looming airlines crisis

“Consumers deserve even stronger protections,” three Democrat senators wrote Transportation Secretary in November

Published: December 29, 2022 5:05pm

Updated: December 29, 2022 11:26pm

Like a slow-motion train wreck that wasn’t thwarted, the Christmas holiday travel disaster was forewarned to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg a month ago by members of his own party who pleaded he take more aggressive action to force airlines to address wary consumer concerns about growing flight cancelations, delays and ticket refunds.

"Passengers are rightfully displeased with airline performance... Consumers deserve even stronger protections," Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote Buttigieg on Nov. 23, urging him to strengthen and expedite new regulations targeting the airlines' performance.

You can read that letter here.

A similar warning came from a bipartisan group of 38 state attorneys general, who wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a few months ago, saying that Buttigieg's department was turning a deaf ear to airline consumer complaints.

"Over the past couple of years, our offices have received thousands of complaints from outraged airline passengers about airline customer service—including about systematic failures to provide required credits to those who lost travel opportunities during the pandemic," the attorneys general wrote.

"Federal law places the central responsibility for addressing violations of airline consumer protection with the United States Department of Transportation... Unfortunately, the agency has thus far failed to respond and to provide appropriate recourse in those cases. Americans are justifiably frustrated that federal government agencies charged with overseeing airline consumer protection are unable or unwilling to hold the airline industry accountable," they added.

You can read that letter here.

Buttigieg swatted away such concerns, boldly promising he had the situation under control after a summer of airline failures. "I think it will get better by the holidays. We're really pressing the airlines to deliver better service," the Transportation Secretary told "The Late Late Show" host James Corden in late September.

Buttigieg was wrong: Christmas travelers suffered through one of the worst travel seasons in history with thousands of flights delayed, missing luggage stacked in backlogged airport carousels, and consumers calls going unanswered.

It took Buttigieg, once a rising star in the Democratic Party after his improbable 2020 presidential run, four days into the crisis to surface publicly, with his promise Tuesday of accountability for poor-performing airlines like Southwest. But that response earned him bipartisan ridicule.

"What’s happening with the railroads, airlines & the supply chain is a result of a small city mayor being made the Secretary of Transportation as a means to pad his resume for President," prominent Democratic strategist Nina Turner tweeted. "Secretary Buttigieg is a prime example of failing up."

Turner's former boss, the past presidential candidate and current Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had his own sharp words for Buttigieg, suggesting he was going soft on corporate airlines that got taxpayer assistance during the pandemic.

"Southwest's flight delays & cancellations are beyond unacceptable," Sanders tweeted Wednesday. "This is a company that got a $7 billion taxpayer bailout & will be handing out $428 million in dividends to their wealthy shareholders."

Buttigieg’s department "must hold Southwest's CEO accountable for his greed and incompetence," Sanders added.

Republicans leveled similar criticisms.

"This airline mess, racist highways, supply chain disasters, lines of ships unable to get into the ports is what you get when you hire people whose qualifications are levels of wokeness," Donald Trump Jr. tweeted Thursday, linking to the attorneys general letter from the summer.

Buttigieg did not immediately respond to Just the News' request for comment to his office. 

Cantwell, the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee and one of the authors of the letter to Buttigieg in November, suggested Congress is likely to step in now and impose solutions, like a new consumer protection rule, after the holiday travel disaster.

"The problems at Southwest Airlines over the last several days go beyond weather," Cantwell tweeted this week. "The Committee will be looking into the causes of these disruptions and its impact to consumers."

“Many airlines fail to adequately communicate with consumers during flight cancellations. Consumers deserve strong protections, including an updated consumer refund rule,” she added.

The letter she and the other Democrats sent in November pressed Buttigieg to strengthen the department’s planned consumer protection rule. "As a busy holiday travel season approaches, we urge the Department to move expeditiously to bolster and finalize this rule and ensure that travelers receive their rightful compensation for flight cancellations and delays," the senators wrote.

The senators also foreshadowed the crisis that would play out on national TV this holiday season by laying out in meticulous statistical detail the growing failure of airlines in 2022 to meet their obligations to travelers.

"According to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), domestic airlines cancelled nearly 3% of flights during the first eight months of this year — a 63% increase over pre-pandemic figures — and delayed 21% of flights," they  noted. "Air carriers have blamed weather and air traffic control staffing shortages for these disruptions, but nearly 40% of delays were due to factors within the carrier’s control."

"Consumer complaints have similarly taken off," they added. "In the first half of 2022, DOT received 15,955 complaints about U.S. airlines, compared to 4,492 complaints during the same period in 2019 — a 255% increase. Passengers are rightfully displeased with airline performance."

Democrats, meanwhile, missed another opportunity to address the crisis, refusing to move forward with legislation Republican Texas Rep. Chip Roy and Sen. Linsey Graham, S.C., introduced in the summer to help solve a growing shortage of pilots by raising the mandatory retirement age.

A few days before the Christmas crisis began, Roy warned of what lay ahead.

"With Christmas around the corner, Americans face sky-high airfares & unprecedented flight delays & cancelations due to the pilot shortage," he predicted on Dec, 19. He was right.


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