WASHINGTON – Leading progressives are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to take aggressive action to reduce flight disruptions at airports, including requiring airlines to refund passengers for flights that have been delayed or canceled.
“Taxpayers bailed out the airline industry during their time of need. Now, it is the responsibility of the airline industry and the Department of Transportation to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that the flying public and crew members are able to get to their destinations on time and without delay,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote in a letter addressed to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday.
Sanders called on the Department of Transportation to require airlines to refund passengers for flights delayed over an hour. He also said the department should impose additional fines on airlines for flights delayed more than two hours and for scheduling flights that they are unable to properly staff.
The department defended its performance, and Buttigieg said earlier this week that the administration is considering what actions it could take to crack down on canceled flights. First, though, the department wants to see whether steps promised by airline executives have an impact on flights over the July Fourth weekend.
“That is happening to a lot of people, and that is exactly why we are paying close attention here to what can be done and how to make sure that the airlines are delivering,” Buttigieg told the Associated Press a few days after he met with airline executives.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is also the Democratic nominee for Senate in the state, called on the Department of Transportation to fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for “every flight they cancel that they knew they didn’t have the staff to fly.”
“To put it mildly: this is ridiculous,” Fetterman said in a statement. “People are missing weddings, funerals, family reunions, and other precious moments because airlines are failing consumers. ... This is happening weekend after weekend. And with the Fourth of July around the corner, it’s only going to get worse.”
Flight delays and cancellations have surged in recent months as air travel has rebounded close to pre-pandemic levels. More than 1,500 flights were canceled over the past weekend, with more expected ahead of the July Fourth holiday weekend. Airlines are cutting daily flights from certain airports, citing a mix of factors responsible for the delays, including weather and lack of staffing.
A Transportation Department spokesman said the agency has cracked down on airlines during the pandemic, noting it increased the number of staffers handling airline consumer complaints, made progress with proposed federal rules to protect customers and investigated more than 20 airlines for not providing refunds quickly. The department also hit Air Canada with the largest fine in the department’s history for failing to issue cash refunds, the spokesman said.
“We share the expectation that when Americans buy an airline ticket they will get where they need to go safely, affordably, and reliably,” the spokesman said. “We will continue to work with airlines to meet that expectation, but also not hesitate in using enforcement actions to hold them accountable.”
Both Fetterman and Sanders noted pandemic-era laws funneled $54 billion to the airline industry to keep companies afloat as business and leisure travel plummeted. That cash was tied to the companies agreeing not to lay off workers, but some airlines offered early retirement and buyouts as a way to cut staff regardless. In total, they shrunk their workforces by 56,000.
“Airline executives are now attempting to distract the public by blaming their failures on others. The truth is they have no one to blame but themselves,” Joseph DePete, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, wrote in a USA Today op-ed that noted many of the major airlines are in better financial position today than they were before the coronavirus pandemic.
Another issue raised by both Sanders and Fetterman is abrupt cancelations they say are a result of airlines knowingly scheduling flights that have a high probability of being canceled, ostensibly to max out profits.
“The airlines know that their crews are not adequate to handle their existing flight schedules,” William McGee, a former aircraft dispatcher who now advocates for consumer protections at the American Economic Liberties Project, told The Prospect. “That’s why we see so many last-minute cancellations.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.