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Air Travel Debacles Put a Star of Biden’s Cabinet in the Hot Seat

WASHINGTON — Appearing on late-night television in September, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expressed confidence that airlines would improve their performance after a dismal summer of flight delays and cancellations.

“I think it’s going to get better by the holidays,” Mr. Buttigieg told the host, James Corden.

His prediction did not age well.

Around Christmas, a winter storm plunged Southwest Airlines into an operational meltdown, causing thousands of flights to be canceled and stranding passengers for days during the busy holiday travel season. And last week, a Federal Aviation Administration system outage forced departures to be halted nationwide for about 90 minutes, setting off another wave of chaos at airports around the country.

The back-to-back air travel debacles have placed an unwelcome spotlight on Mr. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who rose from obscurity to contend for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and later became the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the Senate to a cabinet post.

Until the past few weeks, Mr. Buttigieg, who turned 41 on Thursday, had enjoyed a relatively smooth glide as transportation secretary. He has traveled the country promoting the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, appearing with grateful local leaders to trumpet the money headed their way. He has also been a go-to messenger for the White House on topics beyond roads and bridges, jousting on Fox News and appearing on Sunday talk shows to promote President Biden’s agenda.

But the recent aviation woes present a formidable challenge for a cabinet member whose prior managerial experience came on a far smaller stage. Even before Southwest’s meltdown, the Transportation Department had received a flood of consumer complaints about flight delays and cancellations, and Mr. Buttigieg had faced calls to take more aggressive action to penalize airlines for their failings.

“Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation has been hesitant to hold the airlines accountable,” said John Breyault, the vice president for public policy at the National Consumers League. “While Secretary Buttigieg has talked a tough talk, particularly over the past few months, we have yet to see that really translate into action.”

Mr. Buttigieg responded to the Southwest fiasco by calling the disruptions “unacceptable” and reminding the airline of its obligations to consumers, including providing prompt refunds for canceled flights and reimbursing travel expenses.

Southwest Airlines canceled more than 16,700 flights in late December, stranding passengers and bruising the airline’s image.Credit…Kyle Grillot for The New York Times

“Southwest is responsible for getting their house in order,” Mr. Buttigieg said in an interview. “But what we’ll be doing is putting them under a microscope, both in terms of their customer service and whether they’re living up to that responsibility, and what they have to do in order to not be as vulnerable in the future.”

The F.A.A. outage, which occurred when a system that sends safety alerts to pilots went down, fell more directly under Mr. Buttigieg’s watch, and it came at a time when the F.A.A. lacks a permanent leader. Mr. Buttigieg quickly took responsibility for the mess, telling reporters, “When there’s a problem with a government system, we’re going to own it, we’re going to find it, and we’re going to fix it.” The F.A.A. said on Thursday that a preliminary review of the incident found that contract personnel had “unintentionally deleted files” while working on the system.

Complaints about air travel long predate Mr. Buttigieg’s time as transportation secretary, and he possesses a limited number of tools to improve the flying experience for the American public. Congress passed legislation in 1978 to deregulate the airline industry, and mergers have left four carriers dominating the domestic market.

In the case of the Southwest catastrophe, the airline struggled to recover from the winter storm after its system for scheduling flight crews became overwhelmed. Its problems were exacerbated by the “point to point” approach it uses for routes, with planes hopscotching from city to city without returning to large hub airports. As transportation secretary, Mr. Buttigieg could exert pressure on Southwest to do right by its customers, but he had no role in the airline’s internal operational troubles.

The recent disarray in the nation’s air travel system is nonetheless an undesirable turn of events for Mr. Buttigieg, whose image relies heavily on his technocratic wonkiness. A Harvard-educated former McKinsey & Company consultant, he has often boasted about his efforts in South Bend to improve the workings of municipal government, including by harnessing data to inform decision making.

Mr. Buttigieg’s status as an ascendant figure in the Democratic Party has also made him a prime target for Republicans, who eagerly skewered him after the F.A.A. outage grounded flights. “Pete Buttigieg couldn’t organize a one-car funeral,” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, wrote on Twitter last week.

In addition to potentially running for president again, Mr. Buttigieg has been speculated about as a possible Senate candidate in Michigan, where Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, announced this month that she would not seek re-election next year. Mr. Buttigieg had previously changed his residency to Michigan, his husband’s home state. He responded to Ms. Stabenow’s announcement by saying, “I am fully focused on serving the president in my role as secretary of transportation, and not seeking any other job.”

Mr. Buttigieg became transportation secretary in early 2021, as demand for air travel was rebounding following its steep decline at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. His tenure has coincided with a period when airlines have struggled with staffing issues and travelers have endured a slew of mishaps.

Last year, 20.4 percent of scheduled flights were delayed and 2.3 percent were canceled, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Both figures were up from 2021, when 16.1 percent of flights were delayed and 1.5 percent were canceled. In the first three quarters of last year, the Transportation Department received nearly 49,000 consumer complaints about air travel, an increase of 27 percent from the same period the year before and far higher than prepandemic levels.

In the interview, Mr. Buttigieg pointed to a number of steps his department had taken over the past year to protect air travelers. In August, the department proposed tightening the rules for when airlines are obligated to provide refunds to customers. In September, it rolled out an online dashboard that shows the services that airlines have committed to providing travelers in the event of delays or cancellations; administration officials said its creation had spurred airlines to improve their policies.

“In terms of what we’ve done and in terms of what we’re doing, I would stack up our work in this area against anybody who’s taken this on at the federal level,” Mr. Buttigieg said.

Mr. Buttigieg, left, and Martin J. Walsh, the labor secretary, speaking to reporters at the Capitol last month. There has been speculation that Mr. Buttigieg might run for president again, or for the Senate.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Under Mr. Buttigieg, the Transportation Department has also fined air carriers nearly $16 million for various violations, including almost $12 million for issues related to customer refunds. Most of the fines were imposed on foreign carriers. Mr. Buttigieg said the penalties assessed last year amounted to a record for the agency.

The department is also investigating three U.S. airlines over whether they scheduled flights that they did not have enough staff to support, a spokeswoman for the agency said, though she declined to identify the airlines.

Even before the recent air travel woes, Mr. Buttigieg had faced calls to take a harder line with the nation’s airlines, which received tens of billions of dollars in federal aid to help keep their workers employed during the height of the pandemic.

In a letter to Mr. Buttigieg in June, Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, called on him to fine airlines $55,000 per passenger for every canceled flight that they knew they could not adequately staff and $15,000 per passenger for flights that have lengthy delays.

State attorneys general have also pressed for tougher oversight. In a letter to congressional leaders in August, a bipartisan group of about three dozen attorneys general faulted the Transportation Department for failing to protect travelers and hold airlines accountable, saying that a “vacuum of oversight allows airlines to mistreat consumers.” The attorneys general, who said the problem spanned administrations of both parties, asked for legislation empowering them to enforce consumer protection laws against the airlines.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, said Mr. Buttigieg should impose stiff financial penalties on carriers, akin to how the Obama administration cracked down on passengers being stranded on tarmacs.

“Just saying customers need to be reimbursed and there will be fines retroactively, that’s important, but not enough,” Mr. Khanna said. “There needs to be across-the-board fines for flight cancellations and for the failure to provide customer service, and there has to be an accountability on that.”

Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said Mr. Buttigieg inherited a department that had been significantly underfunded and came with a host of problems. She said that to his credit, he had been in constant communication with aviation leaders and had been front and center to address problems when they came up.

“People can see that he’s engaging on every issue and taking ownership of that,” Ms. Nelson said, “but that also opens him up for criticism, because there’s not a day that goes by that somebody is not finding fault with the airline industry.”

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