At the nadir of the pandemic, U.S. taxpayers bailed out 10 major airlines with more than $50 billion for little in return and no expectation to ever get that money back. Now, those same airlines—including American, Southwest, United, Delta, JetBlue, and Alaska—are returning the favor by stranding thousands of passengers daily with significantly delayed and canceled flights primarily due to staffing shortages. Bernie Sanders has an idea to fix it: Fine their asses.
In a letter sent to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttiegieg, Sanders urged the Department of Transportation to fine airlines when flights are delayed more than two hours or canceled because the flight could not be adequately staffed. He also proposes passengers get “promptly” refunded for flights that have been delayed for more than an hour.
“During the pandemic, when air travel came to a near halt, U.S. taxpayers came to the rescue and gave $54 billion to the airline industry,” Sanders said. “Given all of the generous taxpayer support that has been provided to the airline industry, all of us have a responsibility to make sure that passengers and crew members are treated with respect, not contempt.”
The idea for fines stems from a 2010 rule that imposed up to $27,500 penalties per passenger for airplanes that sit on the tarmac for three hours or more. The fine resulted in a 98 percent decline in such delays. However, a 2016 study by MIT and Dartmouth College researchers found the rule likely increased passenger delays and flight cancellations overall (although they also proposed several changes to the rule that could alleviate those effects). And automatic refunds for delays are a common feature in countries with more efficient travel, such as Germany’s Deutsche Bahn rail service which automatically refunds 25 percent of the fare for a delay of 60 minutes and 50 percent for a delay of 120 minutes or more regardless of cause (this reporter once received the 50 percent compensation after a four-hour delay because someone jumped in front of the train, for which Deutsche Bahn staff were oddly apologetic).
In response to Sanders’ letter, a DOT spokesperson told Motherboard, “We share the expectation that when Americans buy an airline ticket they will get where they need to go safely, affordably, and reliably. We will continue to work with airlines to meet that expectation, but also not hesitate in using enforcement actions to hold them accountable.”
Sanders is not the only one calling for more accountability from airlines. An emerging problem appears to be that airlines do not have much incentive to avoid delays and cancellations. Dennis Tajer, a pilot and member of the Allied Pilots Association which represents American Airlines pilots, alleges the airline industry is deliberately scheduling flights it knows it cannot staff. Airlines "looked at the demand, and they said 'Here’s where the money is. Let’s go get it,'" Tajer said. "But they never had a plan to actually fulfill that, and they left it on our plate." He added it is “a failure of management to utilize the money that was given to them by the American taxpayer to have us ready for the recovery, and we’re not.”