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Air travel system is ‘very brittle,’ Buttigieg says. DOT wants to hear traveler complaints

<i>Gado/Getty Images</i><br/>
Gado via Getty Images
Gado/Getty Images

By Marnie Hunter, CNN

Air traffic disruptions have plagued summer travelers, and this past weekend was no exception.

Friday was the worst day for cancellations since mid-June, with 1,613 US flights canceled, according to data from flight tracking site FlightAware. And cancellations kept stacking up over the weekend.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is not happy with the continued air travel chaos and is calling on travelers to share their experiences.

While Buttigieg acknowledged that severe weather this weekend disrupted air travel, “it shouldn’t have created the kind of ripple effects through the system that it did.

“That is something that to me is an indication that we still have not seen the improvements that we need, that the system is very brittle,” Buttigieg said Wednesday on CNN’s New Day.

He said the “human factor” is the biggest contributor to snarled air traffic.

“Not having enough crew, especially pilots, to do the job. And airlines, of course, have an obligation to service the tickets that they sell,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg met with airlines before July 4, calling for more realistic schedules, more pilot training and more responsive customer service. He said the meeting also addressed how the Federal Aviation Administration could help ease disruptions.

Airlines have been preemptively trimming their schedules to ease disruptions. American Airlines announced cuts to September and October flights last week.

The Department of Transportation last week proposed a rule that would expand protections for travelers seeking refunds, and the Secretary invited the public to weigh in on the rule and to file complaints when airlines aren’t responsive.

The proposed rule would more clearly define cases where flights are significantly changed or canceled to provide a clearer path to refunds in addition to creating more pandemic-related consumer protection.

‘A good start’

The posting of the proposed rule on Regulations.gov had more than 400 comments on Wednesday morning.

One commenter, Natalia Villegas, agreed that more consumer protections are needed.

“The current ruling of when consumers are entitled to compensation is very vague and makes it almost impossible for the consumer to see any sort of compensation,” Villegas wrote, noting a year-long struggle to receive a flight refund.

Another commenter said it was “a good start” but that it “doesn’t go far enough.” That commenter, Carol Poindexter, would like to see monetary compensation for delayed flights.

Buttigieg told CNN that his own biggest frustration is with cancellations, noting that his own flight was canceled on Friday.

The air traffic chaos has escalated amid soaring fares and a very lucrative quarter for airlines.

Buttigieg acknowledged the public’s frustration with airlines that have received federal bailouts during the pandemic.

“I think a lot of passengers don’t understand how more than $50 billion goes to keeping these businesses in business, and then when demand comes back … they’re not prepared to meet or service that demand.”

He said that while hiring has come back in most areas, airlines are still short on pilots, due in part to early retirements. Recent pay increases instituted by some regional carriers should help recruit and retain more pilots, he said.

But the pilot shortage is likely to take some time to remedy, one analyst recently told CNN.

“A lot of pilots retired. It’s not easy to replace them,” said Jim Corridore, senior insights manager for research firm Similarweb. “It’s a long process, it’s still going to be a year or so to have the airlines have a full schedule that this level of demand will dictate.”

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CNN’s Chris Isidore and Pete Muntean contributed to this report. Top image: Extremely long security lines extend beyond the terminal building and onto the street outside the Kahului Airport in Maui, Hawaii, on August 1. (Gado/Getty Images)

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