Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he is watching how airlines perform amid a winter storm that will sock most of the country and create blizzard conditions in some states — a storm that was already snarling travel Thursday morning in advance of its path.
Buttigieg this week praised the airline industry for what he suggested was a seamless Thanksgiving travel week — a steep departure from the summer chaos that saw thousands of flights delayed or canceled and people stranded in airports across the country. But he warned that the outlook for the impending holiday travel season won’t be as rosy.
“We have not just a large portion of the country affected by these winter storms, but that includes some of the key hubs for many of our airlines,” he said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
And indeed, as of Thursday morning Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a major hub for airlines like United Airlines, was already tracking more than 260 cancellations and 70 delays. According to flight tracking service Flightradar24, some 3,300 flights nationwide have been canceled as of lunchtime, which is about 7 percent of flights.
Buttigieg said he is “going to be watching closely” to see if airlines have made themselves “more resilient than it was early this summer when we saw some of those extraordinary levels of disruption.”
Airlines for America, which represents major U.S. airlines, said they are “squarely focused” on ensuring people arrive safely “amid the severe weather across the country.”
“While we cannot control the weather, airlines are doing everything in their power to minimize disruptions,” including allowing travel waivers for those who need to change their flights.
Buttigieg said more staffing to provide extra cushion throughout the system — from the airlines to air traffic controllers on the FAA side — will help ease the way.
“It’s going to be very important for that hiring to continue, that staffing to continue, to create some cushion in the system, especially when you go into days like this where there’s weather — nobody can control the weather, but you can control how resilient the system is,” he said.
Lawmakers back in Washington are also scrambling to leave ahead of the moving weather, with the Senate looking to vote on the $1.7 trillion spending package after they left Wednesday night without voting on the omnibus because of a border issue.
“We have to get out of here as quickly as possible. We need cooperation from everybody,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor.
DOT has been working on a suite of rules and changes intended to bolster protections for airline passengers hit with delays and cancellations, though they are months away from being finalized. Buttigieg has also been active in informing people of what they can do to advocate for themselves with airlines, especially when it comes to refunds, and created a consumer dashboard that allows passengers to quickly see what benefits each airline offers when things go wrong.
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