Air Travel Debacles Put Pete Buttigieg in the Hot Seat

Even before the recent air travel woes, Mr. Buttigieg had faced calls to take a harder line with the nation’s airlines, which received tens of billions of dollars in federal aid to help keep their workers employed during the height of the pandemic.

In a letter to Mr. Buttigieg in June, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, called on him to fine airlines $55,000 per passenger for every canceled flight that they knew they could not adequately staff and $15,000 per passenger for flights that have lengthy delays.

State attorneys general have also pressed for tougher oversight. In a letter to congressional leaders in August, a bipartisan group of about three dozen attorneys general faulted the Transportation Department for failing to protect travelers and hold airlines accountable, saying that a “vacuum of oversight allows airlines to mistreat consumers.” The attorneys general, who said the problem spanned administrations of both parties, asked for legislation empowering them to enforce consumer protection laws against the airlines.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, said Mr. Buttigieg should impose stiff financial penalties on carriers, akin to how the Obama administration cracked down on passengers being stranded on tarmacs.

“Just saying customers need to be reimbursed and there will be fines retroactively, that’s important, but not enough,” Mr. Khanna said. “There needs to be across-the-board fines for flight cancellations and for the failure to provide customer service, and there has to be an accountability on that.”

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said Mr. Buttigieg inherited a department that had been significantly underfunded and came with a host of problems. She said that to his credit, he had been in constant communication with aviation leaders and had been front and center to address problems when they came up.

“People can see that he’s engaging on every issue and taking ownership of that,” Ms. Nelson said, “but that also opens him up for criticism, because there’s not a day that goes by that somebody is not finding fault with the airline industry.”

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