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Airlines face their first big holiday test — and Congress is watching

Airlines are facing big pressure to keep the Thanksgiving travel weekend from turning into a repeat of their summer meltdowns. And Congress is ready to bring down the hammer if they fail.

The major domestic carriers insist they have enough air crews and other employees to handle the nearly 5 million passengers expected to hit the skies this week, which is projected to be the busiest Thanksgiving travel period since before the pandemic. So far, those hopes appeared to be borne out as of Tuesday, when the Federal Aviation Administration was expecting more than 48,000 flights to crisscross the country.

But lawmakers, federal regulators and consumer groups are still wary of any sign of backsliding by the airlines, which canceled flights in droves last summer because of what they called a combination of messy weather and short staffing that left them ill-equipped to handle the travel surge.

Some members of Congress also want Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to do more to force airlines to make things right for passengers stranded by flight delays and cancellations. That includes a request Wednesday from three Senate Democrats — shared exclusively with POLITICO — that Buttigieg’s department force airlines to pay for meals, hotel stays and shuttle services when a travel setback is the airlines’ fault.

Republican lawmakers have previously joined Democrats in demanding answers from airlines for their flight debacles.

Buttigieg, who has been making media appearances on travel headaches for the past year, said this week that airlines seem to be doing better this time around, though the Department of Transportation will be “watching this very closely” during the holidays.

“We’re definitely in better shape,” Buttigieg said Monday at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. “I would not say we’re out of the woods yet, but I am cautiously optimistic about this week being off to a good start.”

A lot is at stake for the airlines, which have already faced questions from lawmakers about why their $50 billion in federal pandemic relief didn’t leave them better prepared for the sharp bounceback in travel demand.

While DOT has largely opted for dialogue instead of punishment to get the airlines to improve their performance, just last week the department announced it had forced Denver-based Frontier Airlines and five foreign carriers to give passengers $600 million in refunds for canceled flights. It also fined them a total of $7.25 million and said more civil penalties against airlines for consumer protection violations could follow by the end of the year.

That was just a taste of what the government can do, people following the industry said.

“The airlines are keenly aware that if they do not meet or exceed expected standards of service to the public when things go wrong and within the airline’s control, they know the government is going to come down hard on them,” said airline and travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt.

DOT has broad consumer protection authority and uses it when airlines fail to issue prompt refunds, keep passengers on the tarmac too long or violate similar rules, though the agency has largely stayed on the sidelines during the chaos that has punctuated the past year. But it can take stiffer action if it chooses to, Harteveldt said, such as imposing steeper fines or even threatening to take away takeoff or arrival times at a handful of key airports, Harteveldt said.

“There is no patience and very little goodwill left among lawmakers, government agency leadership and the traveling public to cut the airlines slack for things that are viewed to be controllable,” Harteveldt said, excluding unexpected bad weather.

The trade group Airlines for America, also called A4A, said the industry has put its summer woes behind it.

“Airlines are ready now,” Sharon Pinkerton, A4A’s senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy, told reporters Nov. 16. “What’s different is, frankly, is the fact that we have hired thousands more people. We have clearly identified what our issues have been and we’ve worked to address them. That’s why we’re confident this travel season will be different.”

Not just refunds

Lawmakers who had given the airlines all that pandemic relief money, in part to prevent mass layoffs, remain riled that the industry was so unable to cope when passengers returned.

In their letter to Buttigieg on Wednesday, Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked DOT to increase the kinds of compensation that passengers are legally entitled to for delays or cancellations that are the airlines’ fault. Many airlines voluntarily give passengers benefits such as meals or hotel stays in those circumstances, but not all carriers do, and some don’t waive their fees for passengers who choose to change flights.

The senators’ letter is in keeping with DOT’s latest proposal to help strengthen protections for airline passengers who want a cash refund after a flight is canceled. The lawmakers also want increased transparency, saying airlines should have to file monthly reports to the department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics listing how much money in refunds and vouchers they had given to passengers.

Republican lawmakers have also pressed airlines on these travel growing pains. Last year, House Transportation Committee ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) — likely to become the panel’s next chair — joined Democratic Chair Peter DeFazio of Oregon in asking the airlines to explain their systemwide disruptions. Separately, Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee demanded answers from major carriers on what remaining obstacles stood “in the way to achieving normalcy.”

Pushes for more compensation for passengers could find a home in the FAA reauthorization bill that Congress is required to pass in 2023, said John Breyault of the National Consumers League.

Breyault, the league’s vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud, argued that the U.S. should adopt more European-style rules that give passengers cash if a cancellation or long delay occurs, even if the flight eventually takes off. Second, more people need to police the system, he said.

The “trend with the DOT for years” has been “fewer enforcement actions and less money recuperated for consumers,” Breyault said in an interview. “That comes down to the fact that DOT is one agency that has a small staff who are devoted to overseeing the multibillion-dollar U.S. airline industry.”

If appropriate, other agencies should play a role, he said.

Some Democratic lawmakers agree. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) introduced a bill in August, H.R. 8698 (117), that would allow the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to pursue investigations into oversold flights that lack enough crew members to fly them.

“More Americans are expected to fly this year as opposed to last year, but unfortunately, flying has turned into a nightmare for many travelers; we need laws in place to protect passengers,” Schakowsky said in a statement last week. She hopes to incorporate her legislation into the next FAA bill, which lawmakers are piecing together.

The larger issue is that customers are often on their own in seeking compensation for a botched flight experience. Federal power to intervene has its limits depending on the cause behind the delay or cancellation.

While airlines are slowly progressing, staffing imbalances persist, said Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents pilots at American. On Tuesday, the union launched a campaign calling on pilots to distribute business cards featuring DOT’s and the airline’s websites that inform stranded passengers of their next steps.

While airlines have cut down on the number of scheduled flights that they’ve determined they can’t realistically operate, airlines still can’t seem to sufficiently match crews to schedules as travel stays in demand, Tajer said.

“Not only do pilots want work-life balance, which would actually support well-rested pilots who are able to fly more, we are in the strongest need for certainty in our schedules, and the scheduling practices,” Tajer said.

‘These are startup airline mistakes’

Airlines for America noted earlier this month that more workers have entered its ranks, growing by roughly 100,000 full-time employees — including pilots, flight attendants and gate agents — between November 2020 and September 2022. The industry’s passenger-carrying sector now has 467,000 full-time employees, according to A4A.

Airlines have had work to catch up on staffing, A4A’s Pinkerton said. During the Nov. 16 call, she said scheduled passenger carriers have had to adjust to “a new post-pandemic world by changing the models to ensure that we’re accounting for increased absenteeism.”

Ultra-low-cost carriers and regional airlines continue to grapple with a lack of qualified pilots as larger airlines like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines promise better pay and benefits packages. Many airlines offered incentives for employees to take voluntary leave or retire early over the course of the pandemic, said Harteveldt, which he said has led to mismanagement at budget airlines also looking to make gains as demand climbs.

Pinkerton previously told POLITICO that while airlines have trained more people in their fields, such as scheduling managers, in some cases new employees are “still less experienced than our workforce pre-pandemic.”

For those setting schedules for pilots, that rings especially true, Tajer said, even if more crews are on standby to fill in if vacancies or staffing shortfalls occur.

Gaps exist across the pilot ranks, with new pilots often stuck in training instead of flying passengers across the country. Furthermore, when schedules begin to fall apart, for reasons such as bad weather or computer outages, airlines rebuilding their schedules are “in emergency mode,” Tajer said. “They just want to push [pilots and planes] out there.”

Tajer lamented that “there’s a lot of learning that’s going on” at the airlines, referring to the schedule mismatches as “startup airline mistakes.”

“But the real gut punch on this was none of this was supposed to happen,” he said. “We were supposed to be ready for this.”

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