(Adds more comments, airline group comment)
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, Aug 8 (Reuters) - The U.S. approach to regulating airlines and ensuring passengers are properly treated needs improvements, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on Monday.
"We've been due for a refresh on a lot of our rules toward airlines and when you get it right, the entire system is better off - certainly passengers are better off," Buttigieg told Reuters. "(Airlines) have a responsibility to take good care of passengers and we have a responsibility to hold them accountable."
Last week, the U.S. Transportation Department (USDOT) proposed rules to strengthen airline passenger protection and require airlines to provide vouchers that do not expire when passengers are unable to fly for some pandemic reasons.
Buttigieg said the rule could be the biggest expansion of passenger protections in years.
He also plans to finalize a new rule proposed in July 2021 to require passenger airlines to refund fees for bags that are significantly delayed and for services like onboard Wi-Fi that do not work.
Last month USDOT warned it may prohibit airlines from charging extra fees to allow young children to sit next to accompanying family members. Buttigieg said U.S. airlines are improving performance since flight woes this year led to tens of thousands of flights being canceled but have more to do. Airlines over the weekend canceled about 3,000 U.S. flights as bad weather snarled traffic.
Buttigieg has urged airlines to set more realistic scheduling and boost staffing to improve performance. He has rejected suggestions from airlines that air traffic control staffing is to blame.
"But I think you can tell that they are not there yet," Buttigieg said of airlines. "I think this summer provided a lot of reminders of why customers expect our department to have their back."
Buttigieg noted the U.S. government has completed 10 airline investigations and is pursuing enforcement actions. Last week's proposal would also codify USDOT's longstanding interpretation that failing to provide refunds when an airline cancels or significantly changes a U.S. flight constitutes an unfair practice.
"We're untying our own hands with the update on unfair and deceptive practices," Buttigieg said.
Airlines for America, a trade group, noted recently that U.S. airlines have also trimmed their summer capacity by 16% and adjusted their staffing models to account for the time it takes to hire and train new employees.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler and Josie Kao)