U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he is willing to take a hard line with airlines when necessary as the Biden administration vows a sweeping upgrade in passenger consumer protections.
“We’re continuing to work to make sure that airlines live up to their obligations, which we will enforce,” Buttigieg told Reuters in a wide-ranging interview on Thursday.
U.S. airlines have sparred with the administration in recent years over responsibility for flight delays, passenger rights, landing slots and other issues. Carriers and a federal audit say the Federal Aviation Administration must boost air traffic control staffing.
Buttigieg has opened numerous investigations and imposed fines for carrier misbehavior. President Joe Biden has often criticized airlines, saying in February “airlines can’t treat your child like a piece of baggage.”
While Buttigieg works with airlines when possible, he added: “We’re going to beat ‘em up when we think that’s important to get passengers a better deal.”
Buttigieg said he is “in the middle of what I intend to be the biggest expansion of passenger rights in years. And there are tensions that are naturally going to come through with that.”
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby recently suggested the Federal Aviation Administration had “failed us” before changing his tone.
In late June and early July, United had higher cancellations that it blamed in part on air traffic control staffing issues.
“It was another scenario where you had the rest of the system seem to recover and one player struggling — so certainly something we’re looking at it,” Buttigieg said.
In late 2022, Southwest Airlines (LUV.N) suffered an operational meltdown after bad weather that also affected peers was compounded by its legacy scheduling system. Buttigieg has an ongoing investigation into Southwest’s meltdown but he declined to discuss findings.
Buttigieg said the U.S. airline industry has improved over last year, citing lower cancellation rates and adding “the schedules are more realistic, certainly the outcomes are better.”
The Transportation Department plans to propose new rules requiring airlines compensate passengers for significant flight delays or cancellations when carriers are responsible.
Buttigieg said the July 1 rollout of 5G C-Band has gone better than expected with minimal disruptions. Last month, he warned of potential delays for airplanes without upgraded radio altimeters.
Buttigieg said airlines were largely prepared but that “took a lot of pressure. It took multiple moments where we had to really just make sure they could read our body language that we really were serious… I don’t think the airlines believed us early on.”
The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since April 2022 and a prior nominee withdrew in March.
Buttigieg said the White House was close to naming a new nominee. The White House has been considering naming former Deputy FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker, sources told Reuters, but Buttigieg declined to identify the expected nominee.