Transportation Sec. Buttigieg, others, warned ahead of time of potential for mass flight cancelations

 December 30, 2022

The combination of the recent severe winter storm system plus an antiquated scheduling system for one particular commercial airline, Southwest, resulted in a massive number of flight cancelations nationwide over the past several days that have caused significant disruptions for millions of Americans.

Congressional leaders, President Joe Biden, and especially Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg are now all demanding answers or scrambling to react to the situation, but it has also now been revealed that they were all warned ahead of time, especially Buttigieg, about the impending catastrophe, independent media outlet The Lever reported.

In fact, a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general had previously raised the issue of mass flight cancelations, among other common consumer complaints, and urged both Congress and the Transportation Department to allow the states to take enforcement or regulatory action where the federal government was not.

Southwest Airlines' scheduling system "melted down"

To be sure, the recent winter storm system that swept the nation just ahead of Christmas understandably led to high rates of flight cancelations and delays for virtually all of the commercial airlines, but while most of those airlines quickly recovered and were back on track after the bad weather passed, the same cannot be said for Southwest.

Instead, according to the Los Angeles Times, the mass cancelations from bad weather exposed known vulnerabilities in Southwest's "antiquated" and outdated scheduling software and caused the airline to essentially lose track of where its own crews and passengers were or where they should be, which resulted in a "domino" effect of further cancelations and delays.

"This was the perfect storm," William McGee, a senior fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, told the Times. "Other [airlines] dealt with this and came back from this; Southwest was sort of brought to its knees. It deserves to be blamed for not being more resilient."

In response to the issues with Southwest, the Transportation Department tweeted on Monday, "USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan."

Sec. Buttigieg himself appeared on CNN a day later to address the "unacceptable situation" with Southwest and how it "melted down" in comparison to the other airlines, and vowed to take action to ensure the company was held "accountable" for its "responsibilities" to its customers.

A growing problem that needs to be addressed

Interestingly enough, Sec. Buttigieg in September had appeared on "The Late Late Show with James Corden" where he bragged about what his department was doing to protect travelers and crack down on the growing issue of non-weather related airline cancelations and delays. Buttigieg vowed at that time that airline travel "is going to get better by the holidays," and added, "we're really pressing the airlines to deliver better service."

The Lever noted that that appearance came just one week after a bipartisan coalition of 38 state attorneys general had sent a letter in August to congressional leaders that raised the issue of consumer complaints about commercial airlines, including how canceled flights are handled, and how those complaints had been forwarded to the Transportation Department in light of federal control over the industry.

"Unfortunately, the agency has thus far failed to respond and to provide appropriate recourse in those cases," the state AGs wrote. "Americans are justifiably frustrated that federal government agencies charged with overseeing airline consumer protection are unable or unwilling to hold the airline industry accountable and to swiftly investigate complaints submitted to the US DOT."

Still no meaningful action

Those state AGs urged Congress to take action to empower the states to take action in place of the federal government, and model legislation was even proposed in September to that effect, but still nothing was done, which prompted that same bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general to send a letter in December to Sec. Buttigieg himself.

That letter warned of the potential for an impending disaster in airline travel over the imminent holidays and urged the secretary to accept and implement specific recommendations that would grant them the authority to enforce applicable laws and rules with regard to significant cancelations or delays.

In the end, it has now been revealed that Buttigieg has been well aware of the growing problems with high rates of commercial flight cancelations and delays for quite some time but has done very little, if anything, to actually address the issue or allow others to act in place of his apparently flat-footed department.

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