Senators pressure DOT to crack down on airlines for poor performance

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The DOT said that recent collaborations with airlines have contributed to positive steps, including carriers setting more reasonable schedules.
The DOT said that recent collaborations with airlines have contributed to positive steps, including carriers setting more reasonable schedules. Photo Credit: Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock

Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have penned a letter to DOT secretary Pete Buttigieg, urging that he and his department get tougher on airlines for operational failures.

"We write to urge the Department of Transportation to fully utilize its statutory authority to protect consumers and promote competition in the airline industry," reads the July 25 letter.

So far this year, airlines have cancelled 2.6% of flights within, into and out of the U.S., up from 2% in 2019, according to flight tracker FlightAware. The rate of flights arriving more than 14 minutes behind schedule, which is the standard used by the DOT to define a flight as late, has increased from 17.1% in 2019 to 20.6% this year. 

In addition, said Warren and Padilla, airlines are increasingly overbooking flights and resorting to bumping customers involuntarily. The involuntary denied-boarding rate of .44 per 10,000 passengers during the first quarter, which is the most recent period for which the DOT has released statistics, was nearly triple the rate during first quarter of 2018.

Consumer complaints about airlines to the DOT also are elevated relative to before the pandemic. In May, the most recent month for which the department has published data, the DOT fielded 2,413 complaints against domestic airlines compared to 814 complaints in May of 2019. 

The senators also zeroed-in on high airfares, which were up by an average of 34.1% year over year in June for domestic flights. 

"After receiving tens of billions of dollars in assistance from American taxpayers, major airlines have reciprocated by dramatically increasing ticket prices and reaching new lows in their treatment of travelers," the senators wrote, referring to the $58 billion in federal grants that airlines and their contractors received during the first two years of the pandemic. "To put an end to these harmful consumer practices and safeguard competition in the industry, the department must play a leading role by aggressively using the authority it has been given by Congress."

In a statement responding to the letter, the DOT said that recent collaborations with airlines have contributed to positive steps, including carriers setting more reasonable schedules, increasing their focus on customers service and increasing worker pay. 

In July, notably, the cancellation rate for U.S. airlines has dropped to 1.6%, down from 2.7% in June, according to FlightAware, though the rate of delayed arrivals has stayed steady at close to 23%. 

"DOT will continue to take action to protect the rights of airline passengers and consumer rights, and when airlines fail to meet their responsibilities, they will be held accountable," the DOT said. 

Last year, the department's Officer of Consumer Protection fined Air Canada $4.5 million for not paying refunds for canceled flights, the largest ever fine it has imposed, the DOT noted. 

Trade group defends the airlines

The trade group Airlines for America (A4A), which represents the large mainline U.S. carriers, defended the industry's efforts, noting that carriers have ramped up hiring initiatives and increased communication with travelers. 

"This summer, carriers have proactively adjusted their staffing models to ensure they are adequately staffed for each flight including the time it takes to hire and train new employees and proactively trimmed their summer capacity by 16%," A4A said. "In fact, as of June 1, 2022, A4A passenger carriers were staffed with 10 percent more pilots per block hour than they were pre-pandemic in June 2019." 

A4A said that the federal Payroll Support Program for airlines has been recognized as the most successful Covid-19 pandemic relief program. 

In their letter, Warren and Padilla reminded Buttigieg that the DOT has the authority to impose fines on airlines for delays that are a carrier's fault. Through May of this year, 70% of delayed flights were caused either directly by the airline or by the previous flight arriving late, which is sometimes an airline issue, DOT data shows. 

The DOT should also more readily fine airlines for high concentrations of cancellations, said the senators.  

And Warren and Padilla suggested that the DOT end the practice of overbooking, saying that when airlines overbook flights, they should either pay a hefty fine or pay passengers enough to encourage voluntary rebookings. 

"For decades, airlines have systematically oversold their flights, offering tickets they know they can't fulfill," they wrote. "When this gamble fails, it should be airlines -- not consumers -- that pay the price."

Which airlines do the most bumping?

Among the 10 largest U.S. carriers, bumping was mostly done in the first quarter by American, Southwest and Frontier.

American and Southwest bumped 1,970 and 2,310 passengers, respectively.

Frontier was by far the worst offender. The discount airline bumped 2,453 passengers, similar to Southwest, but its rate of 5.32 involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 flyers was more than seven times the rate at Southwest. 

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