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U.S.-WASHINGTON, D.C.-HEARING-TRANSPORTATION DEPARTMENT-PETE BUTTIGIEG

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg attends a hearing of a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 28, 2022. | Source: Xinhua News Agency / Getty

New light is being shed on Southwest Airlines’ mass cancellations as attention turns to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg and how his actions, or inactions, factored into the ongoing air travel disaster affecting thousands of passengers.

That new light just happens to also be old.

Nearly five months before Southwest started canceling about 84% of its flights this and last weeks, New York Attorney General Letitia James appeared to be among the first in a succession of states’ legal authorities to warn Buttigieg about the frequency and timing of airlines delaying and canceling flights. In a letter to Buttigieg dated Aug. 2, James, specifically citing Southwest as one of the offending airlines, said her office had received complaints from consumers about canceled and delayed flights over the July 4 holiday.

The letter proposed a potential solution that DOT could facilitate in order to alleviate “the deeply troubling and escalating pattern of airlines delaying and canceling flights over the past several months, particularly over holiday weekends.”

James’ solution in part called for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “implement measures action to prevent airlines from continuing these practices and to remedy consumer harm.” That proposal included having the FAA perform “regular audits of airlines to ensure compliance, thoroughly investigate airlines with excess cancellations, and impose fines on airlines that do not comply.”

The FAA reports directly to Buttigieg’s DOT.

The Lever reported that other U.S. attorneys general sent a similar letter weeks later to Congressional leaders claiming that DOT was falling short of its responsibilities to protect travelers from situations James had previously laid out.

“As you are aware, federal law places the central responsibility for addressing violations of airline consumer protection with the United States Department of Transportation (US DOT). Accordingly, our offices have relayed the complaints we have received to the US DOT,” said the letter dated Aug. 31 and addressed to Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy. “Unfortunately, the agency has thus far failed to respond and to provide appropriate recourse in those cases. Americans are justifiably frustrated that federal government agencies charged with overseeing airline consumer protection are unable or unwilling to hold the airline industry accountable and to swiftly investigate complaints submitted to the US DOT.”

The Lever reported:

The warnings came just before Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg appeared on national television insisting travel would improve by the holidays, and before Southwest executives — flush with cash from a government bailout — announced new dividend payouts to shareholders, while paying themselves millions of dollars.

This week, Buttigieg told CNN that he would make Southwest pay, literally.

From CNN:

“I conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they are going to go above and beyond to take care of passengers and to address this,” he said.

Buttigieg told CNN the Department of Transportation is prepared to pursue fines against Southwest if there is evidence that the company has failed to meet its legal obligations, but he added that the department will be taking a closer look at consistent customer service problems at the airline.

“While all of the other parts of the aviation system have been moving toward recovery and getting better each day, it’s actually been moving the opposite direction with this airline,” said Buttigieg.

“You’ve got a company here that’s got a lot of cleaning up to do,” he said.

There’s more that he can do, according to an article published in Washington Monthly back in September that cited the historical precedence of DOT invoking Section 411 of the Federal Aviation Act to “investigate and decide whether an air carrier, foreign air carrier or ticket agent has been or is engaged in an unfair or deceptive practice or an unfair method of competition in air transportation or the sale of air transportation.”

From Washington Monthly:

In 2010, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood used this authority to issue severe penalties for airlines that left passengers waiting on tarmacs for hours before canceling flights, a widespread problem at the time. Many members of Buttigieg’s party, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are urging him to use that power again. New York Attorney General Letitia James has even told him exactly how to do it. “Airlines knowingly advertising and booking flights they do not have adequate staff to operate are flying in the face of the law,” James said at a press conference.

On Twitter Tuesday night, Nina Turner, a former state senator and city council member in Cleveland, suggested that Buttigieg taking action against Southwest was too little and definitely too late. She also suggested the former small-town mayor may be in over his head leading DOT and reminded her followers that she has been calling out Buttigieg “on these airlines” well before winter even hit.

As proof, Turner harkened back to a tweet she posted back in August calling for Buttigieg to “stop playing footie with these airlines and start holding them accountable via fines. I know he loves corporations, but he works for the people—not corporations.”

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