July Fourth Travel Worries Prompt Calls for New Airline Fines

  • Major fines proposed for flights canceled due to staffing issues
  • Buttigieg says air travel disruptions can be ‘solved up front’

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The Transportation Department is facing increased pressure to punish airlines for flight disruptions, as post-Covid demand and a labor shortage strain travel schedules.

US air carriers have struggled to manage demand, with 3.5% of flights canceled and nearly 20% delayed during the first four months of the year. Now officials, including Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman (D) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are calling on the Transportation Department to issue major fines for staffing-related flight disruptions.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is calling on airlines to prepare but hasn’t committed to fines. “I’m a little bit concerned about the July Fourth travel weekend,” he said at an Aero Club event Wednesday.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Travelers wait to check in at San Francisco International Airport on Monday, June 13, 2022.

Fetterman wants the Transportation Department to start fining airlines as much as $27,500 per passenger for each flight they cancel due to insufficient staff. Sanders is calling for even larger fines: $55,000 per passenger for flights canceled due to staffing issues, as well as $27,500 per passenger for significantly delayed flights.

Fetterman said there were more than 2,000 flights canceled in the US this past Saturday through Monday.

“It’s long past time for our government to step in and bring some order to this situation,” Fetterman said in a statement Wednesday.

‘Solved Up Front’

When asked whether the department is considering Fetterman’s proposal and what legal options it has, Buttigieg said the department needs to protect consumers, but that it prefers to deal with these issues with “partnership.”

“We will use whatever authorities are available to us,” Buttigieg said at the event. “But our hope is before resorting to measures like that, the problem can be solved up front.”

Buttigieg said the disruption stems from multiple causes, but airlines also need to use “realistic scheduling.”

Airlines for America, which represents major airlines, recently told Buttigieg that its members are doing “everything within their power” to ensure reliable flights, and shifted blame to Federal Aviation Administration controller staffing issues. The group called the understaffing “crippling to the entire East Coast traffic flows.”

Delta Offers Free Rebooking for ‘Potentially Challenging’ July Fourth

Lawmakers also want airlines to issue prompt refunds to passengers. Democratic Sens. Edward Markey (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) urged the 10 major airlines in letters sent this week to deal with passenger complaints and flight schedule issues ahead of the July Fourth weekend.

“Airlines have now had more than two years to prepare for the return of air travelers, and should be ready to receive and promptly process consumers’ requests,” the senators wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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