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As Airlines’ Service Levels Fall, Secretary Buttigieg is AWOL

As Biden is to immigration, Buttigieg is to transportation.

Photo by Stefan Fluck / Unsplash

When 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg, a Harvard and Oxford-educated former naval officer who served as the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, won the Iowa caucuses in 2020, the Democratic Party beamed. Here was an openly gay politician - who later had children with his husband - who appeared to have all the boxes checked for a stellar career, perhaps all the way to the White House.

Buttigieg's promise prompted President Biden to appoint him the 19th United States Secretary of Transportation. So far, however, Buttigieg has turned out to be a dud, especially in overseeing the airline industry. With the summer travel season about to start, Buttigieg has been clueless about lowering traveler anxiety. 

Alaska Airlines (January 5): On January 5, 2024, a Boeing 737 Max 9 operated by Alaska Airlines was forced to make an emergency landing shortly after departing from Portland International Airport. The incident occurred because a shoddily installed door plug flew off midair, leaving a sizable opening in the fuselage. Fortunately, no one on board was injured.

February 6, 2024: A United Airlines flight from Nassau, Bahamas, to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey experienced "stuck" rudder pedals during its landing roll. The captain reported that the pedals did not respond as expected. The incident occurred on a Boeing 737 Max 8, and investigations are ongoing.

February 19, 2024: A United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Boston, carrying 165 passengers, was diverted and landed in Denver due to damage to one of its wings.

On March 7, 2024, a United Airlines Boeing 777-200 departed from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for Osaka Kansai (Japan). However, shortly after becoming airborne and before retracting the landing gear, the inboard aft wheel of the left main gear separated from the gear strut and fell onto the groundFortunately, the plane landed safely back at the airport in San Francisco, with no injuries reported.

The list in the infographic below shows Boeing plane incidents from the first quarter of 2024.

Infographic dated April 8, 2024

Airline incidents are not just about safety, although they are paramount in a traveler's mind. Last week, a video of baggage handlers unloading a Delta Air Lines flight and carelessly tossing luggage and golfing equipment belonging to a Tennessee University men's golf team went viral, prompting the airline to issue an apology and ask the team for a second chance.

Frequent flier programs at the big airlines are also undergoing significant changes, and each change disadvantages the paying traveler. These programs, which initially focused on distance traveled as long as someone bought a ticket, have become more complex. Today, most programs require you to spend money with the airline as opposed to miles flown. Many basic economy or discounted tickets no longer earn frequent flier points, making it more difficult for travelers to encash them for free travel. The price for claiming a reward flight keeps going up.

With the rush at airports due to inadequate TSA personnel staffing, as security checkpoint lines grow and airlines pack even more passengers into cramped planes, frequent fliers covet elite status levels. These levels allow free upgrades, early boarding, discounted or complimentary lounge memberships, preferred seating, and space for their carry-on bags. However, carriers like Delta Air Lines, American, and United have raised spending requirements to earn elite frequent flyer tiers. 

Buttigieg runs the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), which includes several administrations and offices, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the Maritime Administration (MARAD), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Office of the Secretary.

USDOT's fiscal year 2021 budget was approximately $89.6 billion, the first year of the Biden administration. Reflecting Biden's borrow-and-spend policies and including the additional $37 billion in guaranteed Advanced Appropriations provided under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Department's total budget for FY 2023 was $142 billion. With all the extra money available, why can't the 56,000 DOT bureaucrats do what taxpayers expect them to do and reign in the airlines?

Buttigieg will argue that he has indeed implemented several rules to protect airline passengers. Like other Biden administration officials who rely primarily on hype, Buttigieg says that the rules aim to create transparency, protect passenger rights, and ensure better service across the aviation industry.

Really? Let's examine his record.

Buttigieg gloats that the DOT has finalized a rule requiring airlines to refund passengers for canceled or significantly changed flights. He says that passengers filing a mishandled baggage report are entitled to a refund of their checked bag fee if the bag is not delivered within specific timeframes after arrival. If an airline fails to provide services such as Wi-Fi, seat selection, or inflight entertainment (for which passengers paid a fee), they are entitled to a refund

Seriously, is this the best 56,000 staffers can do for the American traveler? Aren't airlines supposed to issue refunds anyway when they fail to honor the basic terms of a commercial transaction? Also, how is this rule any more effective than a viral social media post or a claim filed with a credit card company for a merchant not honoring the terms of the purchase? 

Buttigieg, who infamously did not visit the site of a freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohiofor more than three weeks after the accident, and who invited criticism when he said that "racism is physically built into" United States highways has focused more on advancing a DEI agenda at his agency than bringing federal pressure on airline companies to improve passenger safety and elevate customer service.

In any other administration, Mayor Pete would have been long fired. But Biden fires no one, no matter how incompetent they are—Blinken, Sullivan, Yellen, Austin, and White House Press Secretary KJP. Birds of the same feather flock together.

Americans have a choice this November to fire the entire Biden team.

Rajkamal Rao is a columnist and a member of the tippinsights editorial board. He is an American entrepreneur and wrote the WorldView column for the Hindu BusinessLine, India's second-largest financial newspaper, on the economy, politics, immigration, foreign affairs, and sports.

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