US Threatens Airlines With Punishment for Excessive Flight Delays

Middle East
Photo Credit: American Airlines.

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Thousands more US flights were delayed or canceled this weekend or, as such days are known of late, days that end in y.

The latest frustrating pileup of flight delays has the US government hanging the threat of fines over the airline companies, who were handed billions of taxpayer dollars to prevent it from happening.

The $54 Billion Handout

Over 2.4 million passengers passed through US airports on Friday, but unfortunate travelers booked on 1,400 flights had their trips canceled. That’s after 2,800 flights were axed Memorial Day weekend. Through June 13, airlines canceled 3% of 4 million commercial US flights, while 20% were delayed, up from 2% and 17% in the same period in 2019. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Passenger airline companies were handed $54 billion in US taxpayer money to cover payroll costs during the pandemic, with only $14 billion to be repaid. In exchange, airlines were supposed to keep employees on the job. To get around this, they encouraged employees to take buyouts, resign, or retire earlier, shedding 42,000 full-time workers in the process, according to Transportation Department data. They’re now so understaffed the government is entertaining fines over the resulting inconvenience:

  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg held a virtual meeting with airline CEOs last week, who reportedly said they were taking steps to ward off more delays. On Saturday, he told the Associated Press his agency could issue fines if conditions don’t improve this summer — fines, however, tend to be small, such as last year when Air Canada (which had $4.9 billion in operating revenues) had to pay a $2 million for not refunding passengers quickly enough.
  • In the US, an airline has to provide passengers with a refund if their flight is significantly delayed and they choose not to go — but in Europe, passengers are entitled to increasingly pricey compensation (up to €600 per person) for delays, whether they go or not.

Part of the Problem: The Federal Aviation Administration, part of Buttigieg’s department, has been guilty of contributing to flight delays in travel-friendly Florida, where it has promised to boost staffing. After he met with airline CEOs, Buttigieg’s flight from New York to Washington, D.C. was canceled and he ended up driving back — if the cancellations keep coming, he may pass that karma on to the airlines.