Buttigieg warns airlines that a summer mess ‘can’t happen again’: Travel Weekly

With the upcoming Memorial Day weekend kicking off the summer travel season, DOT secretary Pete Buttigieg says the Department of Transportation is ready to hold airlines’ feet to the fire if necessary.

But Buttigieg also acknowledged the shortcomings in air traffic controller staffing and said the FAA is making progress toward alleviating that issue.

“Cancellations and delay rates were at unacceptable proportions last year. And it’s important that that doesn’t happen again,” Buttigieg said during a Tuesday press conference.

Thus so far this year, US carriers have canceled 1.4% of flights, FlightAware data shows. That’s better than the 10-year average. It’s also a substantial improvement from the 2.4% cancellation rate US carriers recorded for all of last year.

Buttigieg noted that improvement but also said that this weekend will be a test of the system. He said the department would take a two-pronged approach to dealing with airlines, working collaboratively with airlines first but exerting pressure if necessary.

Collaborative efforts include steps to reduce airspace congestion and increase system capacity. Steps DOT is taking to pressure airlines including its Fly Right dashboard, which alerts flyers about the respective reimbursement guarantees that airlines have made in the case of cancellations and delays.

The department, Buttigieg said, also continues to enforce refund requirements for cancellations and lengthy delays, including the announcement Tuesday of a $1 million fine against South American carrier LATAM for refund payment delays during the pandemic. A half dozen additional investigations are still pending.

Buttigieg said that from April of last year through February of this year, staffing and other FAA issues were responsible for 8% of airline cancellations, while airline problems caused 33.7% of cancellations. Weather caused nearly all of the other cancellations.

Still, he acknowledged that staffing at air traffic control centers, especially in New York and Jacksonville, remained a problem.

Controller shortfalls played a role in 42,000 delays last summer. And overall, the FAA, which is an agency within the DOT, is targeting 3,000 more controllers than it currently has. This year the agency hopes to hire 1,500 controllers, Buttigieg said.

While he acknowledged that meeting staffing targets will take a while, Buttigieg also noted that the FAA recently activated 169 new flight routes along the East Coast that are more direct and therefore more efficient for airlines.

“DOT is doing its part and airlines need to do theirs as well,” Buttigieg said.

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