The Oklahoman

Government a ‘watchdog’ to keep airlines in line

- Nathan Diller

Even Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg is not immune to travel headaches.

“I mean, like anybody else, it’s frustratin­g to get canceled or delayed and it happened to me the other day,” Buttigieg told USA TODAY in an interview. “Luckily, the delay was not so extreme that I missed my trip, but there have been times when we had to find a different way to get somewhere because of a cancellati­on, just as millions of Americans have experience­d.”

Those disruption­s can range from minor annoyances to major system failures, such as Southwest Airlines’ meltdown over the holidays or the Federal Aviation Administra­tion system outage that grounded all U.S. flights in January. Buttigieg and the Department of Transporta­tion have taken aim at a range of issues in an effort to improve air travel, and just this week launched a dashboard outlining airline policies for family seat selection.

USA TODAY spoke to Buttigieg about other steps the DOT is taking to hold airlines accountabl­e and streamline travel, from policy changes to airport improvemen­ts. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Question: What has been your commercial air travel experience?

Answer: Well, look, I’m a very frequent flyer, as you might imagine. I take at least a trip a week, usually on any number of the major airlines, and so I feel like we always have a chance to mystery shop how the airlines are doing when I’m pushing them to raise the bar on customer service. What we’ve seen is, overall, outside of extreme weather events, a general improvemen­t in terms of cancellati­ons and delays. But there’s still more work to do in terms of improv

ing that customer service experience. Will “significant delays” ever be officially defined by the DOT?

Yeah, that’s something we’re working on right now, and we’re going to have hearings coming up (this month) so that passengers and others can weigh in about their experience. We think right now there’s a pretty clear practice that has allowed us to give people refunds and benefits, but we do think that needs to be more specifically codified in regulation. We’re working on a process to try to get that right as we speak.

Editor’s note: U.S. airlines are required by the DOT to give passengers refunds if their flights are outright canceled and they choose not to travel, but the rules around delays are a little murkier. There’s no federal requiremen­t for passengers to receive a refund or reimbursem­ent as a result of a flight delay. DOT has not specifically defined a “significant delay” that would require customer compensati­on.

In addition to the dashboard, what else is the DOT working on to ban airlines from charging families to sit together?

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t have to pay in order to sit next to your kids on a flight. I think most of us think that’s pretty common sense, but that hasn’t been the official policy of any of the major airlines up until now. It’s why we called on them to guarantee this in writing, to make it their official policy, and when they do, we’re getting enforceabl­e commitment­s so that we could respond if there are any violations in that policy.

So far, three out of the top 10 airlines have responded and made that commitment. We’re calling on all of the airlines to do the same.

The reason we’re doing the regulation at the same time is because we want to make sure that that is an enforceabl­e industrywi­de standard. But we’re doing a both/and approach, and the reason is that regulation­s and rules – just because of the way the law works – take a very long time to finalize (and) put into effect, and passengers shouldn’t have to wait for that. So, my message to the airlines is, we’re going to do the work to require you to do this, but don’t make us finish the regulation to do the right thing. Do the right thing now. And we’re still going to mandate it.

In the aftermath of the Southwest debacle, what has the DOT done to hold the airline accountabl­e?

Yeah, the investigat­ion is still open, so there’s some things I can’t talk about right now. But what I’ll say is that we are continuing to follow up on complaints that our department is receiving, and when it’s something that we can’t tell if the airline got first, we’re sending it to the airline saying, “You’ve got to take care of this customer who came and told us that they didn’t get their reimbursem­ent, their refund,” or whatever it is.

We’re also investigat­ing the possibilit­y of unfair scheduling. That’s when an airline knowingly schedules flights that they’re not going to be able to serve.

Southwest said that they are making operationa­l changes. How is the DOT working with them?

Well, it’s their responsibi­lity to get this done. We can hold them accountabl­e for the outcome. So we’re not going to go in and tell them what software to use. We are going to tell them that they have to meet a better standard of customer service.

And this is a very Southwest-specific issue. You know, that winter storm that hit around Christmas really crippled the entire system, but every other airline recovered pretty quickly. Southwest moved in the opposite direction. ... We don’t view our role as running the airline, but we’re a watchdog. We have to make sure they run their airline properly.

 ?? JOHN MINCHILLO/AP, FILE ?? “What we’ve seen is, overall, outside of extreme weather events, a general improvemen­t in terms of cancellati­ons and delays,” Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg said of commercial air travel.
JOHN MINCHILLO/AP, FILE “What we’ve seen is, overall, outside of extreme weather events, a general improvemen­t in terms of cancellati­ons and delays,” Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg said of commercial air travel.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States