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Bernie Sanders calls on Buttigieg to take action amid flight delays, cancellations

He urged the transportation secretary to require airlines to refund passengers whose flights are delayed and cover their meals and lodging when needed.
People wait in line to check in at Logan International Airport in Boston on June 18, 2022.
People wait in line to check in at Logan International Airport in Boston on June 18.Jonathan Wiggs / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other liberals are calling on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to protect passengers facing a deluge of problems at airports nationwide as airlines struggle to meet demand.

In a letter to Buttigieg on Tuesday, Sanders acknowledged passengers' frustrations with flight delays, cancellations and high prices, and he called on the Transportation Department to take "immediate action" to mitigate the issues.

"During the pandemic, when air travel came to a near halt, U.S. taxpayers came to the rescue and gave $54 billion to the airline industry," Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, wrote in the letter. "The top eight airlines alone received nearly $50 billion in taxpayer assistance from the federal government. Given all of the generous taxpayer support that has been provided to the airline industry, all of us have a responsibility to make sure that passengers and crew members are treated with respect, not contempt."

Sanders urged Buttigieg to require airlines to refund passengers for flights that are delayed more than an hour, including requiring ticket refunds and alternative transportation for passengers who experience delays of up to four hours and meals and lodging for those who are delayed longer.

He also called on Buttigieg to impose hefty fines on airlines for flights delayed more than two hours and for scheduling flights that don't have proper staffing.

"Taxpayers bailed out the airline industry during their time of need," Sanders said. "Now, it is the responsibility of the airline industry and the Department of Transportation to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that the flying public and crew members are able to get to their destinations on time and without delay."

In response, a spokesperson for the Transportation Department pointed to actions it has taken, such as a new rule in January designed to protect consumers from "unfair and deceptive practices" and a proposed rule requiring prompt refunds when they are due.

"We share the expectation that when Americans buy an airline ticket, they will get where they need to go safely, affordably, and reliably," the spokesperson said in an email. "We will continue to work with airlines to meet that expectation, but also not hesitate in using enforcement actions to hold them accountable."

The spokesperson said the Transportation Department has opened multiple investigations and taken "myriad consumer protection actions against the airlines, including the largest fine in department history against Air Canada for its failure to issue cash refunds."

Sanders is pressing Buttigieg more than two years after they fought for the Democratic presidential nomination, with Sanders representing a liberal wing that wants the party to be more aggressive in using power on behalf of consumers and against corporations. Buttigieg, who ran on a center-left platform, dropped out in early March 2020 and endorsed Joe Biden.

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominate John Fetterman also called on the Transportation Department to act, saying in a statement Wednesday that the situation is "ridiculous."

"People are missing weddings, funerals, family reunions, and other precious moments because airlines are failing consumers. But this is not just one tough weekend of travel. This is happening weekend after weekend," he said. "This is unacceptable. It’s long past time for our government to step in and bring some order to this situation."

Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, called on the Transportation Department to "start fining airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for every flight they cancel that they knew they didn’t have the staff to fly — just as the Obama administration did in 2009 whenever airlines left a plane on the tarmac for over 3 hours."

Buttigieg also has faced criticism from liberal commentators. Robert Kuttner, a co-editor of The American Prospect, wrote in a recent article that Buttigieg has been “mostly AWOL” on airline abuses.

"The long-suffering airline passenger is a potential voter," he wrote. "It’s hard to think of another area where aggressive action by a highly visible and charismatic Cabinet secretary would reinforce Biden’s faltering message that his administration is on the side of beleaguered consumers and against rapacious special-interest industries."