How An Airline Crisis Turned Pete Buttigieg’s DOT Dream Into A Nightmare

Planes, trains and a bipartisan torrent of criticism.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images

After spending Christmas with her grandchildren in Southern California, Cecille Scott learned that her flight home to Arizona on Southwest Airlines was canceled. Apparently hoping to catch a later flight, Scott spent 16 hours at the Los Angeles International Airport before learning that she would have to wait until New Year’s Eve for an available flight. So instead, Scott hit up friends for some last-minute cash and bought a ticket for a long bus ride back home.

Scott, whose story was recounted in NBC Los Angeles, was one of about 2 million passengers affected by the more than 16,000 flights canceled over the Christmas holidays – the vast majority of them by Southwest Airlines. Stories of the indignities they endured were varied and numerous: Weddings missed, nights spent sleeping on cold terminal floors and hundreds of dollars in unforeseen expenses.

In Washington, D.C., lawmakers from both parties were eager to channel their constituents’ outrage, pointing fingers at airline executives and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Republicans said it was evidence that Buttigieg, formerly a mid-sized city’s mayor, was ill-prepared for his job and little more than a diversity hire. Progressives said it was evidence Buttigieg wouldn’t stand up to powerful corporations.

As the chaos grew, Buttigieg went on NBC News to reassure the public he was committed to getting passengers their refunds and reimbursements for the cancellations.

“As a watchdog, we are going to hold them accountable, and we are going to have to take a deeper look at what’s going on with their scheduling systems,” he promised.

As Buttigieg becomes the center of attacks from both progressives and Republicans this week following a massive train derailment and chemical explosion in East Palestine, Ohio, the same condemnations from the left and center are only growing louder, souring what once appeared to be a plum position for the once-and-future presidential contender. He has endured withering criticism for waiting 10 days to comment on the freight-train explosion that spewed chemicals and terrified local residents, and for not promising stronger action to restore Obama-era train safety rules.

Buttigieg’s allies dismiss these criticisms as political theater, the desperate attempts to tear down a future presidential candidate or get revenge for his role in helping President Joe Biden win the Democratic primary in 2020. They argue responsibility for the chaos lies with Norfolk Southern and Southwest, not inside the Transportation Department’s headquarters in southwest Washington, D.C.

DOT boasts he’s recovered more than $1 billion in refunds for consumers, and some of the longest-standing consumer advocates defend his performance, but figures on the left argue he has not done enough to directly challenge a concentrated and powerful airline industry.

The 41-year-old followed a unique path to national prominence. As mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg managed to outlast several U.S. senators on the presidential campaign trail in the 2020 Democratic primary – and develop a dedicated grassroots following. His endorsement of Biden at a critical moment in that race helped propel him from local government to a coveted cabinet position.

Buttigieg’s confirmation as Transportation secretary was as non-controversial as possible in this polarized political era, with even a majority of Republican senators backing him. And with Biden promising major infrastructure investments, the rumored White House aspirant could look forward to at least four years of ribbon-cuttings and opportunities to glad-hand with potential supporters.

Instead, Buttigieg has spent the past year jumping from crisis to crisis.

On Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote to Biden demanding Buttigieg’s resignation.

“For two years, Secretary Buttigieg downplayed and ignored crisis after crisis while prioritizing topics of little relevance to our nation’s transportation system,” he wrote. “It is painfully clear to the American people that Secretary Buttigieg has little regard for the duties of the Secretary of Transportation.”

Rubio’s pleadings aside, Buttigieg retains the enthusiastic backing of Biden’s administration, which views him as a uniquely talented messenger for the president’s infrastructure-heavy agenda. And his allies insist he’s done more than any prior transportation secretary to advance consumer protections for air travelers.

While graphic images of the East Palestine derailment dominate headlines, Buttigieg’s airline industry management is more likely to shape his legacy. Whether Buttigieg can end increased delays and cancellations could define the one-time McKinsey consultant’s tenure for much of the public.

“He has had ample opportunity to get tough with the airline industry and basically bring them in line,” said Bill McGee, an aviation expert at the American Economic Liberties Project, a think tank that supports tougher corporate regulation. “At this point, he has been a disappointment. He has allowed awful behavior to grow and grow.”

McGee, a licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked on flight operations management, has become one of Buttigieg’s leading critics amid the host of consumer advocates who have called for Buttigieg to get tougher with airlines that pack flights that they lack the staff to operate reliably, only to cancel them at the last minute and leave travelers scrambling.

These advocates have lamented Buttigieg’s unwillingness to impose stiffer fines on the airlines and implement them with enough speed to deter abusive practices.

Not every airline industry critic agrees, however. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is perhaps the most prominent antagonist of the airline industry in Congress, which he believes regularly flaunts consumer welfare and engages in “predatory abuses” because companies face so little competition. Nevertheless, he told HuffPost Buttigieg was steering a large bureaucracy in the right direction, if not perhaps not at the pace he would like to see.

“His heart is in the right place,” said Blumenthal, who introduced legislation to create a Bill of Rights for airline passengers this month. He later added: “I don’t think Pete Buttigieg is scared of the airlines. But he might not use the language I would use to describe them.”

“He’s been a strong and effective advocate for consumer interests,” Blumenthal continued. “And I think he’s moving to be even more aggressive as he sees up close and personal all the flaws in this industry, from a disregard to consumer welfare to monopolistic and predatory abuses.”

Asking ‘Pretty Please’

The summer of 2022 saw a surge of travel as consumers exited a pandemic mindset, but unprepared airlines cancelled flights en masse due to a shortage of workers.
The summer of 2022 saw a surge of travel as consumers exited a pandemic mindset, but unprepared airlines cancelled flights en masse due to a shortage of workers.
via Associated Press

Demand for commercial airline tickets surged as customers returned to the friendly skies in full force last spring following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The major airlines, still plagued by pandemic-related staff shortages, proved incapable of accommodating the soaring air travel volume. Over Memorial Day weekend, airlines canceled 2,800 flights and delayed 20,000 more.

“This is a national issue, it’s affecting the whole domestic aviation industry,” Buttigieg said in late May, referring to the pilot shortage.

But veteran aviation industry watchers had a different takeaway: Airlines were knowingly booking flights they were incapable of adequately staffing. The remedy, Democratic lawmakers and consumer advocates insisted, was making airlines feel the pain for their greed.

Many Democratic politicians urged Buttigieg to hold the airlines accountable. New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) and several Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Alex Padilla (Calif.), sent Buttigieg letters over the summer calling for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to take greater action to prevent airline abuses and ensure customers access to cash refunds in the event of cancellations, rather than merely vouchers that can be spent on another flight.

Several lawmakers specifically called for levying steeper fines on airlines that cancel flights they know they cannot staff. In his letter to Buttigieg, Sanders called for airlines to be fined $55,000 per customer for canceled flights that airlines knew they could not staff. He noted that the federal government had spent $54 billion bailing out domestic airlines at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Buttigieg mainly responded to the airlines’ waves of cancellations with words rather than action. In mid-June, the cabinet secretary admonished the airline executives in a meeting to “make sure that first of all their schedules reflect the realities of some of the staffing issues that they’ve encountered,” he told NPR.

“I received a lot of assurances about the steps that they’re taking, and I know that this is being taken very seriously when it comes to all of the measures airlines can take,” he added.

In August, Buttigieg escalated his tone but not his tactics. Instead, he called the level of flight cancellations “unacceptable” in a letter to airline CEOs.

The letter was typical of Buttigieg’s ask-nicely approach to regulating the aviation industry, according to McGee, who also covered the industry for decades as a journalist and then an advocate at Consumer Reports.

“The airline industry doesn’t respond to being asked ‘pretty please,’” he said. “They respond to being told.”

McGee, part of an informal group of consumer advocates that meet with a senior Department of Transportation official every quarter, began Buttigieg’s tenure with an open mind but soon grew disappointed.

Still, the letter produced some real action: After Buttigieg informed the airlines it would begin publicizing whether airlines offered reimbursements for hotels and meals after canceled flights, nine of the 10 largest U.S. airlines began offering them.

Buttigieg announced in September that the agency was considering proposing a rule requiring airlines to refund canceled flights in cash rather than vouchers. But McGee noted at the time that the rule would not be retroactive, leaving many customers affected by the summer’s cancellations without recourse.

Then in November, Buttigieg fined six airlines for failing to refund customers’ money after canceling flights. The fines were the largest in the agency’s history, totaling $7.25 million. But only one of them, Frontier Airlines, was a domestic carrier – and the $2.2 million penalty levied on it was relatively modest.

What’s more, Frontier is a relatively small airline, controlling 3% of the country’s domestic airline market. The company is also not a member of the influential airline trade group, Airlines for America (A4A), depriving it of the political pull enjoyed by companies like Delta and United.

Indeed, Frontier’s famously no-frills approach includes its lobbying operation. They spent just $60,000 on lobbying in 2022, according to public disclosures, compared to the more than $5 million spent by Airlines for America. In addition, A4A’s members spent millions of dollars on their own individual lobbying efforts.

Frontier Airlines, a famously no-frills and low-cost option, is the only U.S. airline to face a significant fine during Buttigieg’s tenure at DOT.
Frontier Airlines, a famously no-frills and low-cost option, is the only U.S. airline to face a significant fine during Buttigieg’s tenure at DOT.
via Associated Press

Buttigieg’s spokesperson at the Department of Transportation maintains that the agency’s decision to fine Frontier was based on the airline’s refusal to change its behavior.

“We have not taken enforcement action against U.S. carriers other than Frontier Airlines for refund violations so far because the other U.S. carriers took corrective action,” a Department of Transportation spokesperson told HuffPost.

Then came the holiday debacle with Southwest. Buttigieg correctly blamed Southwest Airlines’ failure to update its information-technology infrastructure for the chaos accompanying its cancellations, his critics acknowledge. Faced with severe winter weather that prompted cancellations, Southwest’s rickety computer systems buckled under pressure, sometimes forcing airline employees to manually work out new flight plans for customers with a pen and paper.

But Buttigieg’s detractors argue that Southwest would not have been able to get away with its negligence in the first place if Buttigieg had issued steeper fines for the airline prioritizing shareholder payouts over investments in things like IT infrastructure.

“The reality is that Southwest had no incentive to invest in the IT system because they didn’t have accountability,” progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told HuffPost. “If they had more accountability, maybe they wouldn’t have put the billions of dollars into shareholders.”

Amidst the crisis, the Transportation Department suggested “significant civil penalties” against airlines were coming sooner rather than later.

“Fines result from investigations and a fair process – the Department cannot issue fines at will despite what some politically motivated critics may suggest,” the DOT wrote. “The Department is already investigating several U.S. airlines that it believes may have engaged in the practice of unrealistic scheduling in violation of federal statute and DOT regulation.”

Progressive critics in Congress were not mollified. “This is what the Democratic attorneys general and Sen. [Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.] and I called for six months ago,” said Khanna, who got into a Twitter spat with Buttigieg’s husband Chasten over the issue at the pinnacle of the crisis. “So the question I have is: Why wasn’t it done then?”

Asked about the announcement that the department plans to increase its fines, Khanna told HuffPost, “Better late than never. Let’s see what the fines are.”

The Department of Transportation insists that Buttigieg’s critics are wrong to imagine that Buttigieg could have fined airlines for overbooking planes and failing to update their technology faster than he is currently trying to do.

“We are already in the process of doing this, but fines result from investigations and a fair process,” the spokesperson said. “The Department cannot issue fines at will despite what some politically motivated critics may suggest.”

Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Buttigieg needed to find a “balance” between consumer protection and not harming the airlines’ economic prospects.

“It’s easy to say that if you’re not worried about an airline going out of business and literally hundreds of thousands of jobs that are tied to that airline,” Allred said. “These are not corner stores, these are essential pieces of the nation’s economic infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, McGee and other consumer advocates have been equally disappointed in Buttigieg’s non-implementation of a long-delayed provision in a 2016 funding bill requiring the Department of Transportation to issue a rule barring airlines from charging an extra fee for families with children under 13 to sit together on flights.

The industry-friendly Trump administration failed to act in accordance with the law for years, but Buttigieg has been hesitant to bring the hammer down as well. In June 2022, nearly a year after McGee raised the matter in a meeting with Buttigieg, the agency issued a strongly worded notice urging airlines to abandon the fees voluntarily. And this past October, Buttigieg touted a new rule requiring airlines to be transparent about the fees it demands of families with young kids who want to sit together, but not forcing them to abandon the fees altogether.

“How much further action do we need on this issue? Congress already spoke,” McGee said, referencing the 2016 law.

The Department of Transportation maintains that admonishing the airlines to get rid of the fees is the first step in a process that could result in financial penalties down the line. The notice gave the airlines four months to improve their seating policies, after which the department would review the airlines’ steps. The review is now complete, according to the agency spokesperson.

“The Department recently completed this review and is identifying additional action to ensure airline policies and practices do not serve as barriers to young children sitting next to an adult family member or other accompanying adult,” the department spokesperson said.

DOT has begun the process to ban the fees, which could take until the end of the year. But the administration is moving to make the process quicker. Shortly before Biden delivered the State of the Union address last month, he proposed legislation to take on a variety of “junk fees” – including charging families to sit next to each other on planes. If Congress passes the proposal, DOT would be able to jump-start the process.

The Political Fallout

Regardless of the criticism aimed at Buttigieg, the Biden administration considers him a trusted messenger for the president’s agenda and regularly deploys him on cable television and the Sunday political talk shows.
Regardless of the criticism aimed at Buttigieg, the Biden administration considers him a trusted messenger for the president’s agenda and regularly deploys him on cable television and the Sunday political talk shows.
NBC via Getty Images

Republicans have hammered Buttigieg for the airline failures, portraying them as solely the fault of the transportation secretary – without much evidence backing that up – and arguing it shows he wasn’t qualified for the job to begin with. (A number of right-wing commentators have even suggested Buttigieg has the job solely because he is openly gay.)

“Pete Buttigieg couldn’t organize a one-car funeral,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote on Twitter during the Southwest debacle. “He was never remotely qualified for this role.”

There is an apparent attempt to troll Buttigieg at times. For example, Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced a bill last month requiring Buttigieg to use commercial airlines for work-related travel until Congress reauthorizes funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – a division of the Department of Transportation – later this year. That time window would provide enough time for Buttigieg to get to the bottom of the FAA computer glitch and the Southwest debacle, she said in a statement accompanying the bill.

“If according to Sec. Buttigieg, on MSNBC earlier today, the FAA systems are constantly being updated, and if they’re so good, then why is he flying private all the time?” Mace asked.

Buttigieg’s team has maintained that his use of a jet owned by the FAA is often both necessary due to last-minute scheduling changes and cheaper than the commercial flight alternatives.

Two polls from liberal-leaning sources paint mixed results as to whether the public blames Buttigieg for the airline industry’s struggles. A Data For Progress survey found a 57% majority of voters blamed the airlines for holiday season flight cancellations, while just 18% blamed Buttigieg. The remainder blamed either one of the nation’s two major political parties or didn’t know who to blame.

However, a poll from Fight Corporate Monopolies, the political arm of the progressive American Economic Liberties Project, provided first to HuffPost found just 37% of Americans approved of Buttigieg’s job performance, and 42% disapproved. In addition, the survey conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found 71% of registered voters thought Buttigieg should be doing more to crack down on the airlines.

There are clear partisan splits in the poll results. The Data for Progress poll found Republicans were three times as likely as Democrats to blame Buttigieg, and members of the GOP were five times as likely to disapprove of Buttigieg’s job performance as Democrats were.

One thing the polls do agree on is: Getting tougher on the airlines would be extremely popular. A full 79% of likely voters supported requiring airlines to give a full refund if a flight is canceled, with 68% saying they should be required to refund tickets if a flight is delayed by more than three hours, according to the Data for Progress survey.

A drone photo shows the aftermath of a trail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Area residents have questioned why Buttigieg hasn’t shown up in the wreck’s aftermath.
A drone photo shows the aftermath of a trail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Area residents have questioned why Buttigieg hasn’t shown up in the wreck’s aftermath.
via Associated Press

Beyond the fact that most people love to hate airlines, a failure to hold the large carriers accountable could play into the broader left-wing critique of Buttigieg during the last presidential primary – that he was too soft when battling corporate power.

“He sees working in the executive branch as being a McKinsey consultant. He walks to talk to all the parties involved and have roundtables, and do fact-finding. But he doesn’t seem to particularly care to kick the tools of the federal government into gear,” said Dylan Gyauch-Lewis, a researcher with the Revolving Door Project, a left-leaning group that regularly criticizes moderate administration officials. “He is willing to regulate sometimes, but he’s hesitant to burn any bridges with potentially powerful allies for a future campaign.”

But Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, is a progressive and no stranger to battles with airline industry executives. She credits Buttigieg with quickly getting up to speed on the issues and for staying in touch with advocates as much as the airlines themselves.

“I give him high marks for effort,” Nelson told HuffPost in an interview. “This was not his area of expertise when he waded into it.”

As the train derailment in Ohio continues to dominate the news cycle, the critiques of Buttigieg are essentially on replay. Republicans are painting him as hapless – noting he downplayed the crash as one of 1,000 derailments that happen every year – and progressives are emphasizing that he declined to implement a train safety rule delayed by Trump’s administration, suggesting he kowtowed to powerful railroad industry lobbies.

Buttigieg allies think both critiques have obvious political motivations, with Republicans aiming to cut down one of the few administration officials who effectively communicates to center-right voters, and progressives hoping to eliminate a young, centrist threat to a rising progressive movement.

“It’s disappointing the left is copying Republican tactics,” said one Democratic strategist allied with Buttigieg, who requested anonymity to frankly discuss intra-party disputes. “Over the last few months, it’s become clear they’ll use any excuse to attack Pete. Where were they during the Trump administration when they rolled back these safety regulations? Were they jumping on Elaine Chao every time a plane was late?”

His lack of appearances in Ohio has already started to grate on residents of the village of 4,000 people on the Pennsylvania border.

“Where’s Pete Buttigieg?” a town hall attendee asked the village’s mayor on Wednesday night.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” the mayor responded.

White House officials said on a conference call with reporters on Friday that high-profile officials like Buttigieg were avoiding the area in the immediate aftermath of the wreck to avoid interfering with rescue and recovery efforts. And it’s not clear what role Buttigieg would play on the scene – the Environmental Protection Agency leads cleanup efforts, while the independent National Transportation Safety Board leads the initial investigation.

Industry Resistance – And A Predecessor’s Blessing

Consumer advocates have said Buttigieg should be more like former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (above). But LaHood said Buttigieg is doing a fine job.
Consumer advocates have said Buttigieg should be more like former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (above). But LaHood said Buttigieg is doing a fine job.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Regardless of the marks Buttigieg gets from consumer advocates, his reputation likely stands to benefit from the hard-line resistance of the commercial airline industry to the slightest of regulatory changes.

On Feb. 1, ahead of his State of the Union address, Biden proposed that Congress pass a new bill banning so-called junk fees, including the charges airlines levy for parents to be assured of a seat with their young children. His proposal was met with a harsh reaction from Airlines for America, the industry trade group.

“The federal government should be focused on 21st-century policies and procedures that drive our nation’s aviation system forward, rather than making efforts that threaten to reduce access and affordability for consumers,” the group said in a statement.

The next day, Buttigieg went on CNBC to discuss Biden’s proposal. His fairly anodyne comments in the interview – noting the airline industry has had “more and more consolidation and more and more, for lack of a better term, nickel and diming” – drew a rebuke from Airlines for America “fact-checking” his appearance, and arguing the deregulated airline industry is more accessible to consumers and provides plentiful choices.

“U.S. airlines strive to provide the highest levels of customer service, and it is in each carrier’s interest to provide a positive flight experience for all passengers,” the organization wrote in a blog post. “Commercial air travel in the U.S. is safer and more environmentally friendly than ever before thanks in large part to the competition and innovation unleashed by multiple decades of deregulated air service.”

Ironically, the predecessor Khanna and McGee held up as a model for Buttigieg to emulate was a Republican: former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a moderate who served during the first term of then-President Barack Obama.

They credit LaHood for issuing – and later expanding upon — the Passenger Bill of Rights rule, which, among other things, required airlines to deplane passengers if a tarmac delay exceeded four hours.

“Overall, he was the most proactive DoT Secretary we’ve had in the last 20 years,” McGee said. “Secretary Buttigieg would do well to model himself after him.”

But LaHood himself is satisfied with Buttigieg’s performance.

“From a public interest point of view and getting the message out, he was very, very active, particularly during the holiday season,” LaHood said. Referring to the recent Southwest debacle, LaHood added, “I am very confident that passengers will be well satisfied and that Southwest will have to pay some huge fines.”

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