An American Airlines agent helps a passenger at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California last week.

An American Airlines agent helps a passenger at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California last week. Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Ahead of busy Thanksgiving travel, improvements to air transportation touted

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg highlighted a low airline cancellation rate, airport upgrades and the hiring of more air traffic controllers. He also cautioned that funding squabbles in Congress could hurt progress.

Before the busiest travel weekend of the year, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a press conference on Monday touted improvements made to the air transportation system in the last year. But Buttigieg warned that the progress could be undermined if a House Republican spending bill becomes law.

“So far, 2023 has seen the lowest cancellation rate in the last five years,” he told reporters. “At just 1.3%, it’s much lower than last year. It’s lower even than before the pandemic, which translates to millions more people getting to home or getting to work or getting to their loved ones.”

Last holiday season, mass cancellations crippled air operations and left millions of travelers stranded for days. Buttigieg said the Biden administration has since improved the customer experience. It pressured airlines into adopting consumer-friendly policies—like letting families sit together for free, or providing free food and lodging for airline-canceled flights—by publishing a scorecard of their practices online. The Transportation Department also fined Frontier Airlines $2.2 million last year for delaying customer refunds, and it is investigating Southwest Airlines to determine whether the carrier scheduled more flights than it could handle last winter.

Buttigieg said money from the two-year-old federal infrastructure law is also improving airport facilities. “If you’ve been through an airport lately, you have probably noticed some construction underway,” he said. “A lot of that is thanks to President [Joe] Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes billions to help airports add more check-in encounters, build faster security checkpoints, improve baggage claims, make it easier to get to your gate and, in some cases, build entire new terminals.”

Buttigieg’s comments ahead of the busy Thanksgiving travel weekend come at a fraught time for the airline industry and the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency that runs the country’s traffic control system. The number of air passengers this summer was higher than in 2019. Airlines are still trying to prove they can meet the surge in demand and avoid repeating last year’s disastrous holiday travel season.

Meanwhile, several near-collisions of passenger aircraft have alarmed FAA officials and other safety advocates, who have been meeting for months to determine why so many close calls have recently occurred on airfields and how to prevent them.

Some of the delays last year were caused by the FAA. Like the airlines, the FAA’s control towers were short-staffed after the pandemic, which led to thousands of delays particularly in the Florida and New York regions. An outage of a computer system that notifies pilots about safety problems before their flights caused flight delays nationwide in early January.

Buttigieg said at the press conference that the agency had hired 1,500 more air traffic controllers and was working to address the FAA-caused delays.

“The progress underway with regard to our aviation workforce, technology and infrastructure is not guaranteed,” he said. “Every time extremist Republicans in Congress bring us to the brink of a government shutdown, it threatens to stop the momentum that we built around training and around protecting customer rights. Every time they threaten to slash funding for the DOT and short the FAA—and there’s a Republican proposal to do that on the cusp of reaching the House floor right now—it threatens to reverse all this progress.”

The White House said earlier this month that a GOP spending proposal that the House is considering would allow the FAA to hire more air traffic controllers but would fall short on providing them the technology they need. The Republican proposal is $500 million short of the Biden administration’s request for technology upgrades “which risks increased delays and cancellations due to outages and lost opportunities to improve safety.” The Biden administration also objected to a 20% cut in research funding in the bill.

Congress must reauthorize the FAA about every five years. Reauthorization is the best chance for advocates to change aviation law in a Congress where the chances of getting anything but must-pass legislation to the president’s desk is vanishingly small. This time around, passenger advocates and state attorneys general want the ability to sue airlines in state courts for consumer protection violations. Disability rights proponents want aircraft to be more wheelchair accessible. Other issues like seat sizes, unruly passengers and baggage fees could be at stake too.

But Congress has not been able to agree on a package. A major sticking point is over the training requirements for commercial pilots. House Republicans approved a plan that would allow candidates to do some of their training in simulators, in an effort to reduce a pilot shortage. But U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and former National Guard helicopter pilot who chairs the Senate’s aviation subcommittee, says the in-cockpit hours are a big reason there have been no commercial aviation crashes in the U.S. since 2009.

While these issues were debated on Capitol Hill, the FAA went without a permanent administrator for two and a half years.

Michael Whitaker, a former Obama administration official and one-time United Airlines executive, took over the agency just last month. He will serve a five-year term. One reason it took so long to fill the spot is because Biden originally nominated Phillip Washington, the head of the Denver airport and the former transit chief of Los Angeles County, for the spot. Senate Republicans objected to Washington for not having enough aviation experience.

Whitaker joined Buttigieg at the Monday press conference to tout the $50 million in grants the administration made to local airports for de-icing equipment. The FAA is also stepping up efforts to train more air traffic controllers, by letting veterans and graduates of aeronautical schools go directly to on-the-job training. The agency is also creating “high-resolution tower simulators” in 95 facilities across the country, Whitaker said.

“While we don’t control the weather,” he said, “we’re doing everything in our power to keep flights safe and to keep cancellations and delays low this Thanksgiving.”

Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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