In response to the aviation industry’s recent spate of mass flight disruptions, which have led to thousands of delays and cancellations, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called a virtual meeting with U.S. airlines’ CEOs on Thursday.
A source told Reuters that the U.S. Transport Chief urged airline executives to ensure they could adhere to their planned summer flight schedules, and “pushed airlines to scrutinize whether they can reliably operate the schedules they have published and future schedules under consideration.”
Buttigieg called airline execs on the carpet after U.S. carriers collectively canceled more than 2,700 flights over this past Memorial Day weekend holiday travel period; which caused two U.S. senators to question whether the companies were being held accountable for the inconvenience to consumers.
Only yesterday, thunderstorms and high passenger volumes led to extended delays and lengthy ground stops in Boston, New York, Washington and Charlotte, North Carolina. Flight tracking website FlightAware recorded more than 6,900 U.S. flight delays and over 1,500 cancellations.
On Thursday’s call, Buttigieg questioned airlines about what steps they plan on implementing in order to avoid a repeat of the Memorial Day chaos when the Fourth of July weekend rolls around, and during the rest of what is expected to be a record-setting summer for travel. He also prodded them to bolster their customer service efforts to ensure that affected passengers are able to rebook flights quickly.
Besides contending with episodes of extreme weather brought on by climate change, airlines have found themselves unprepared to handle the influx of passengers headed their way this summer. Staffing shortages continue to be a major obstacle, as carriers pared their workforces down to the bare minimum during the pandemic and now find themselves faced with a lack of willing recruits to fill positions—from pilots to flight attendants, ground crews and check-in agents, among others.
Unable to scale up operations sufficiently to handle the summer demand they evidently didn’t see coming, carriers like Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines have already announced strategic cutbacks to their summer schedules.
Airlines for America (A4A), a trade organization that represents major U.S. airlines, was also on Thursday’s call. Its CEO, Nick Calio, said after Thursday’s meeting: “We appreciated the opportunity to meet with Department of Transportation Secretary Buttigieg to discuss our shared commitment to prioritizing the safety and security of all travelers as they reunite with friends, family and colleagues this summer,” according to CNBC.
In May, Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey had contacted A4A for more information about the mass Memorial Day disruptions. Separately, the senators asked Buttigieg to outline the actions his office was, “taking to hold airlines accountable for serious disruptions and to ensure consumers are wholly and justly compensated.”
Airline execs, meanwhile, have been placing some of the blame on air traffic control systems’ current shortcomings. Last week, A4A told Congress that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to make certain that air traffic control is capable of supporting the increased travel demand.
Last month, the FAA met with airlines about recent flight disruptions in Florida, where factors like intense storms, military exercises and space launches frequently impede operations. At that time, the agency said it would increase air traffic control staffing at one of its key facilities in Jacksonville and evaluate other locations.