Southwest Airlines flight delays and cancellations are just the tip of the iceberg

There is no doubt that Southwest’s Christmas Crisis was the worst customer service debacle in US airline history, setting a new low by being stranded more than 1 million paying passengers. But some of us weren’t at all surprised: Southwest’s crisis was inevitable after years of lax oversight by the Department of Transportation, as well as the airlines. prioritizing stock dividends Y executive compensation on necessary investmentsincluding the terribly outdated IT and personnel scheduling systems that Southwest employees themselves warned about.

As a Federal Aviation Administration licensed aircraft dispatcher who spent seven years managing airline flight operations, and as someone who has advocated for passengers since the year 2000, I can assure you that last week was not about blizzards (or just about the southwest). The travel chaos was caused by all the airlines pushing their operations to the max by not making the right investments in people and technology, scheduling flights understaffed, and filling cabins to the point of bursting, so that any disruption caused massive disruptions, stranding both passengers and luggage. coast to coast

It is unlikely that Southwest and other airlines would have stranded so many passengers if they feared real consequences.

Two camps have sprung up on social media: It’s all Southwest’s fault! No, it’s all the DOT’s fault! I can tell you without hesitation: both the airlines and the Department of Transportation are to blame. America’s commercial aviation system is broken, but so is the only regulatory agency empowered to oversee it.

That’s because of two words: «federal preference.» The phrase, included in the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978means that the steering wheels have fewer rights when interacting with airlines than with almost any other industry: limited ability to sue in state courts, no action from state attorneys general, no bill from state legislatures. Only Congress and the Department of Transportation oversee airlines, and the department and its subsidiary, the FAA, have long wrestled with a dual mandate to promote and regulate airlines. That has done for run without teeth in dozens consumer and safety issues.

Consider what we have seen from the federal government since Covid hit. For starters, retained airlines at least $10 billion in unpaid refunds and unused flight credits after the pandemic forced people not to fly in 2020 and beyond. In November, Secretary Pete Buttigieg finally imposed what he described as “historic” fines. But only Frontier and five small foreign carriers were sanctioned.

The major US airlines, led by United, with more than twice as many DOT refund complaints like every other airline, they were not fined $1. The department told consumer advocates that all other outstanding refunds from domestic airlines were paid, but did not detail what the amounts were or how long the refund took..

So he first half of 2022 had an unprecedented number of flights delayed and cancelled, more than in all of 2021. Despite warnings from legislators and groups like my organization, the American Economic Liberties Project, Buttigieg assured passengers in September that the airlines would address their scheduling issues.

Unfortunately, he did not use his authority under the authority of the Department of Transportation. unfair and deceptive acts rule to investigate why tens of thousands of flights were scheduled and then paid for by consumers, only to be cancelled. Worse yet, no penalties have been reported for the cancellations. This lack of compliance may have contributed to Southwest’s Christmas meltdown, because it’s unlikely that Southwest and other airlines would have stranded so many passengers if they feared real consequences.

Of course, much of the lack of oversight is longstanding. The problem of separating parents and children on flights is a good example. In 2016, Congress told the secretary of transportation order US airlines to waive fees for children under 13 to sit with their families. Three administrations and six and a half years later, we are still waiting.

I requested access to documents in a Freedom of Information Act investigation and found dozens of complaints to the Department of Transportation about kids with issues like autism and some as young as 4, 3, 2 and even 1 sitting apart. Finally, in July, Buttigieg acted, only to kick the can. Instead of announcing that she was following the 2016 directive, she said that she would be “calling” the airlines to do the right thing. If they don’t, she warned, the Department of Transportation «will be prepared for possible action.»

Behind all these problems are the mega mergers (American-US Airways, United-Continental, Delta-Northwest) that were allowed to happen a decade ago, make airlines too big to fail. That reality has been made clear by the fact that airlines congressional bailouts exceeded those of all other industries affected because of the pandemic.

We are now in an era we have never experienced before: a dramatic rally that has led to American, Delta, and United’s controlling almost two thirds of the US market and there are no new airlines from 2007 to 2021. With passenger loads we haven’t seen since the 1950s, US airlines now operate 24/7 almost at maximum capacity.

Obviously, the airline industry has also become too big to care, despite $54 billion bailout from taxpayers during covid. Since then, the US aircraft industry has returned to profitability Y, in some casesnotched revenue record.

Enough is enough. The national airlines are mistreating passengers with impunity and clearly do not fear backlash from consumers, the media or the Department of Transportation. Since the Transportation Department won’t use its authority as the sole sheriff in town to force better behavior from airlines, it’s time to let other lawmakers step up.

My organization recently model bill That would remove federal priority for airlines and empower state courts, state attorneys general, and state legislatures to do what the Department of Transportation won’t do: regulate airline behavior. The time has come to reach out to members of Congress and state attorneys general to change our broken laws and rein in the excesses of this vital but broken industry.