Don’t expect air travel issues to be resolved by Thanksgiving, says Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

The long lines, canceled flights, staff shortages and customer service nightmares that have plagued the airline industry over the past year may be on the decline, but aren’t going away anytime soon.

That’s according to U.S. Transportation Department Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who told the Deseret News on Friday that he expects the current problems to persist through Thanksgiving and into Christmas.

“It’s going to take some time for the pilot workforce to get back to pre-COVID levels,” he said in an interview, noting that in some cases demand is higher now than it was. was before the pandemic.

“I don’t think this is going to be resolved overnight,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg spoke to the Deseret News on Friday during his stopover in Utah, where he unveiled new funding for infrastructure projects alongside Governor Spencer Cox, under the recent infrastructure program of 1 .2 trillion dollars. Buttigieg also met with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, local leaders and firefighters about wildfire prevention at the Emigration Canyon Fire Station.

And while transportation resilience was the theme of the day, the secretary says his department is still engaged in daily discussions with the airline industry.

“I have frequent conversations with them. And what we have seen is encouraging, but there is still a long way to go,” he said.

Cancellation rates aren’t as high as they were in the spring and early summer, hovering around 3% or 4% – they’ve now fallen to around 2%, which is starting to look like the “normal,” Buttigieg said.

Additionally, some airlines have made an effort to improve pilot compensation, while allocating more resources to customer service and changing policies to account for inconsistent fares and refunds. Some airlines are also changing their flight schedules “to match the reality of their staff”.

Planes are lined up at the gates of Salt Lake International Airport Friday, July 29, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“We have certainly seen improvements since the unacceptable conditions that occurred around Memorial Day weekend,” Buttigieg said.

But the problems persist – in the United States, more than 12,000 flights were delayed over the July 4 weekend, with more than 1,000 cancellations. London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol both recently reduced passenger capacity and forced airlines to cancel flights. German airline Lufthansa has canceled almost all of its flights to Frankfurt and Munich this week, stranding thousands of passengers.

And as of Friday afternoon, there were nearly 1,600 delayed flights across the United States and 278 cancellations, according to Flight Aware.

There are a number of factors – many airlines blame airports and governments for airspace congestion and air traffic control problems. Bad weather has also canceled a number of flights this year. And overall, airlines and airports are facing staffing shortages.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently introduced a bill that would raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67 in a bid to keep more people working.

Buttigieg is not convinced by this approach.

“I’m not comfortable with anything that might have an impact on security,” he said. with all the proposals that seem to aim to relax the safety rules.

Buttigieg said some solutions could come from his department — others, especially anything related to security, would require an act of Congress.

As for levers the Department of Transportation can pull, Buttigieg pointed to the Consumer Protection Program, which is currently investigating a number of complaints about airlines not issuing refunds, some of which will soon result in enforcement measures.

Collaborating to manage national airspace is another priority, he said, to address choke points that often lead to delays or cancellations.

The department is also evaluating the definition of unfair and deceptive practices “to make sure it gives us the ability to do what we need to do,” Buttigieg said.

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