Bernie Sanders wants airlines to reimburse passengers for delayed flights

Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg proposing that the federal government take “immediate action” to reduce flight cancellations and delays that have plagued American travelers this summer.

According to Sanders, the US government should fine airlines $55,000 per passenger for each flight the airline has to cancel due to understaffing. Airlines should also be fined by the government $27,500 per passenger for each domestic flight delayed for more than two hours when passengers are required to sit on the tarmac, and $15,000 per passenger for each flight interior delayed more than two hours if loitering on the tarmac is not a factor. (No fines would be handed out if the weather forces a delay.) For flights delayed by just one hour, Sanders wants the federal government to force airlines to reimburse passengers.

While none of this is likely to become law, Sanders’ frequent cries for heavy-handed federal intervention should be resisted whenever they arise. This one is no exception.

Sanders, always a man of the people, reacts to the fact that summer air travel has been a mess. Prices jumped, reflecting pent-up demand that rebounded from the peak of the COVID era, while some airlines (like JetBlue) cut routes and most faced staff shortages. In Atlanta, 400 Delta pilots spent the past weekend picketing, protesting what they say were poor working conditions. According to data collected on Saturday afternoon, 20% of flights from the Southwest in the United States had been delayed for the start of the July 4 weekend. American Airlines recorded similar numbers, while Delta did a little better, at 13%.

“Nine of the ten busiest days for air passenger volume since March 2020 came in the last month,” Sean Cudahy wrote last week for The dots guy, “and the majority of those days have fallen in the past two weeks.” Los Angeles Times reports that “the cancellation rate in the past two weeks is up 59% compared to the same period in 2019, before the pandemic”.

The reasons for this malfunction are complex, however, and the fixes proposed by Sanders – which are more like punishments – would not solve the problems for domestic travelers.

Above all, the summer of flight delays and cancellations is a demand problem. Travel demand is extraordinarily high, which is a positive indicator that most Americans are returning to normal lifestyles after pandemic disruptions, overly cautious guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and high inflation for 40 years. When you order people to stay home for several months and tell them to skip a bunch of vacations and life events, at some point they decide to come back into the game of existing as social creatures. We see this happening now.

But it is also a problem of understaffing. During the pandemic, many airline employees have been unable to do their jobs as they traditionally have due to depressed travel; some of them took part in the vaunted “Great Resignation”, changing industries or retiring a little earlier. Some airlines took advantage of service interruptions to retire some of their aircraft, which forced pilots to retrain to fly different models of aircraft. Some airlines also retrained pilots who had been laid off or laid off during this period of record travel demand. Airlines like Delta, facing financial difficulties during the pandemic, have adopted controversial “youth benefits” (i.e. buyouts) for older, higher-paid employees as a cutback measure. costs. Airlines have done what they can to pull back, cut costs and make the most of a dismal time for the industry.

Meanwhile, air traffic control – run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – also deserves some of the blame. FAA officials deny there is a staffing shortage while simultaneously admitting that air traffic controller training has been reduced due to COVID…which certainly sounds like a staffing shortage.

Sanders is right to lament the fact that airlines received $74 billion in pandemic-related aid from the federal government, which was apparently handed out to ensure airlines would be able to weather the storms. low trip and returning to regularly scheduled service once conditions stabilized, although it didn’t quite work out that way. It’s almost like infusions of federal funds that change airline incentives and don’t even completely prevent poor performance!

It’s hard to see how Sanders’ proposed federal government intervention would create the endgame he wants, at a time when airlines are struggling to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, and are still facing to many unknowns – like whether business travel will ever fully rebound – that are hard to predict.

Many sectors of the economy are currently experiencing stress. There is a palpable feeling among American consumers that everything is simultaneously getting worse and more expensive. But that won’t always be the case, as markets have a way of sorting through these things over time and readjusting to ever-changing consumer needs. Eventually, supply chains will stabilize. Ports will no longer cyclically close or be understaffed due to COVID lockdowns. The real estate market will cool down a bit, with homes no more than 20% above the asking price. Inflation will one day be lower than the current 8.6%. And, yes, airlines will once again compete for the title of best and most reliable, taking savvy travelers with them (and leaving those who don’t care as much about service disruptions to turn to more affordable airlines).

But it’s not Sanders who will pull this off – it’s market forces, quietly at work, to be trusted, not disturbed.

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