Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
In a supreme bit of irony, the day after U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with airline leaders about the massive number of recent flight disruptions and cancellations, his own flight was canceled, forcing him to drive from Washington, D.C., to New York.
That underscores the frustration airline passengers have experienced. Ready and eager to travel at last as COVID fears have ebbed, passengers are finding themselves the victims of overbooking, delays and cancellations as airlines attempt to recoup lost revenue despite often severe staffing shortages magnifying the disruptions.
As Buttigieg told the Associated Press, "This is happening to a lot of people, and that is exactly why we are paying close attention here to what can be done and how to make sure that the airlines are delivering."
The options, unfortunately, appear limited, although Buttigieg has said he is prepared to take enforcement action against airlines that underperform on customer service.
After a Memorial Day weekend marked by thousands of flight cancellations across the country — including fully 9% of Delta's total flight operations — Delta official Allison Ausband explained that "weather and air traffic control, vendor staffing, increased COVID case rates contributing to higher-than-planned unscheduled absences … are resulting in an operation that isn't consistently up to the standards Delta has set … ."
We get it. Everything has been more challenging since the pandemic began. Airlines have been hit hard by a shortage of pilots, who can be especially difficult to replace given high training demands. It takes months to hire and train a pilot to meet federal safety standards.
Buttigieg has urged airlines to hire more customer service workers to rebook flights. But that does little good if there are no flights available for rebooking.
Pilots earlier this month held several protests over being forced to work record amounts of overtime, with some holding signs that read, "If I look tired, it's because I am."
We recognize the predicament airlines are in. Strapped for revenue during the worst of the pandemic, they urged many pilots to take early retirement. Now they lack the personnel to handle the surge in consumer demand.
Nevertheless, it's time to take stock when disruptions become the norm instead of the exception. Passengers in European Union countries have had broad consumer protections in place since 2004. They include compensation when airlines delay or cancel a flight, and meals and hotel stays for overnight delays.
By contrast, the shabby treatment of airline passengers in the U.S. is an old story that gets worse. As far back as 2010, Sen. Amy Klobuchar co-sponsored a Passenger Bill of Rights that called for protections so basic one would have hardly thought they needed to be stated. The new rules required airlines to provide passengers with food, water and toilet facilities during prolonged delays on the tarmac and limited the time they could be forced to occupy a plane to three hours. That came about after a series of horrific stories of passengers trapped on planes for hours while waiting for clearance to take off.
Airlines can't control the weather, but what prevents them from booking a hotel for passengers otherwise stranded? Earlier this month, dozens of Delta passengers were stranded at the Atlanta airport, including a disabled U.S. Army veteran who said he had to sleep on the airport floor overnight and a young mother whose 11-month-old daughter was running out of diapers and formula.
Consumers continue to have too few rights when it comes to air travel. As transportation secretary, Buttigieg can fine airlines that continue to have massive disruptions. But before doing so, he said he wants to see what happens the July 4th weekend and the rest of the summer.
We urge Buttigieg to keep the pressure on airline executives to do better.