Video produced and edited by Nico Pitney and Josh Hirschfeld-Kroen
Taking a flight in America has never been a worse experience.
Tens of thousands of flights have been canceled at the last minute in recent months. Experts say they’ve never seen anything like it.
William McGee, Senior Fellow For Aviation And Travel: “I’m sorry to say that I don’t see an end in sight. This is really unprecedented in terms of the number of cancellations that are occuring so close to departure time.”
Media reports have blamed the airline chaos on weather problems and staff shortages. But that misses the bigger picture.
These cancellations are really a scandal about corporate power — one that airline executives engineered.
Here’s how it worked:
During the pandemic, airlines secured one of the biggest public bailouts of any industry, $54 billion. The catch was that they couldn’t lay off their workers.
But they found a loophole.
Instead of lay-offs, airlines used furloughs and early retirements to push out pilots and crew. By fall 2021, they’d shrunk their workforce by 56,000 people.
Airlines schedule their flights 11 months in advance. They know they don’t have the pilots to service these flights, so now passengers are paying the price. Airlines are essentially committing fraud — scheduling and selling thousands of flights THEY KNOW they can’t service.
“They sold tickets to the traveling public, during the spring and the winter, that they cannot live up to. And its driving us pilots crazy,” an American Airlines captain said.
Airlines are rushing to re-hire, but staffing is still below pre-pandemic levels. They know they don’t have pilots to fly their scheduled flights.
“There is pressure,” American Airlines’ CEO said recently. “We don’t have the pilots that we need to fly a full regional schedule.”
Outrageously, they are refusing to tell passengers in advance and instead canceling flights at the last minute.
The industry acts like it can get away with this, because it usually does.
A wave of mergers has left just a handful of huge powerful airlines. They charge higher prices for worse service, pile on fees, and ignore regulations they don’t like.
In 2021, airlines refused to return $10 billion to customers for canceled flights despite rules requiring refunds.
The FAA is supposed to hold airlines accountable. But experts say it’s one of the agencies most captured by corporate power.
For example, the FAA has let airlines move most airplane maintenance to non-certified mechanics outside the U.S. to cut costs.
McGee told a Congressional panel: “There is no transparency on the critical maintenance and repairs outsourced to El Salvador, Brazil, and China, often under far less stringent oversight.”
The FAA also still allows airlines to charge parents a fee to be seated next to their young children.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the FAA, has done little to address these issues or the cancellations crisis. After advocates raised concerns, Buttigieg decided to meet privately with airline CEOs — and politely told them to do better:
Buttigieg: “I let them know that this is a moment when we’re really counting on them to deliver reliably for the traveling public.”
The next day, his own flight was canceled.
The Biden administration has to take action and show that government is working. It’s been done before, like in 2009 when airlines were routinely keeping passengers stuck on the tarmac for hours.
The Transportation Department barred the practice, then hit American Airlines with a $900,000 fine for keeping over 600 passengers on a tarmac for over three hours. Long tarmac delays have dropped dramatically since.
Secretary Buttigieg could similarly threaten to levy hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines on airlines for every last-minute canceled flight that they KNEW had little chance of flying. This is fraud.
Secretary Buttigieg has been making scores of television appearances to talk about a variety of subjects. One thing he’s not talking about? Airline cancellations.
Secretary Buttigieg needs to act in the public’s interest immediately before Americans’ travel plans are destroyed by the greed of the airline monopolies.