by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is coming under fire over disasters ranging from the airlines’ holiday meltdown to the train wreck that has spilled chemicals in Ohio — and critics are blaming his cozy ties with the industries he’s supposed to regulate.
Outrage over US air chaos spilled into President Biden’s State of the Union Address earlier this month. The commander-in-chief vowed to crack down on excessive fees, saying “airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage” and demanded that “airlines show you the full ticket price upfront and refund your money if your flight is canceled or delayed.”
Less than a month earlier, however, Southwest Airlines — which had canceled 17,000 flights over the holiday season, blaming the weather amid a breakdown in its systems — promoted five top executives under the budget carrier’s new CEO, Bob Jordan.
That’s clear evidence that the airlines aren’t afraid of Buttigieg, critics say — despite the fact that the Secretary of Transportation has sweeping powers to hold them accountable.
“If airlines knew there would be severe punishment, that would change behavior,” William McGee, Senior Fellow for Aviation & Travel at the American Economic Liberties Project told The Post. “If you’re the CEO of a big airline, you’re not afraid of the DOT at this point.”
The big problem: Airlines owe customers $10 billion in refunds for cancellations over the past three years — and they’ve forked over only a tiny fraction of that. In 2020 alone, for example, United received 10,229 consumer refund complaints. That’s despite the fact that under US law, airlines are required to provide customers a full refund for any canceled flights.
“If Buttigieg had been willing to fine the big airlines, you would’ve seen greater investment in customer service. (Southwest Airlines) would’ve held off on a stock dividend,” Jeff Hauser, CEO and founder of the Revolving Door Project told The Post. “Pete could’ve influenced the math airlines did around giving a dividend versus investing in service.”