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Pete Buttigieg is trying to fix air travel with a ‘dashboard.’ What’s on it?


Travelers look at a display board showing canceled and delayed flights at Orlando International Airport earlier this year.

By Heather Murphy and Niraj Chokshi


On Thursday, the Department of Transportation unveiled its most concrete endeavor yet to fix air travel: an online dashboard featuring 10 American airlines with green check marks next to the services they offer when flights are delayed or canceled for reasons within their control. The website, which is reminiscent of the sort of brand comparison charts offered up by Consumer Reports magazine, reveals, for example, that JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines will, in some circumstances, rebook passengers on another airline when a flight is canceled, but that Southwest and Alaska will not.


White House and Department of Transportation officials said the mere idea of an interactive dashboard compelled airlines to make major changes in just two weeks. Before the dashboard’s launch, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter urging airlines to commit to a number of measures, such as hotel vouchers. He also told them that, along with the proposal he made last month to update federal guidelines on refunds, which he will revisit in November, he was “contemplating” making new rules.


“Today, the Department of Transportation officially launched the dashboard, and we’re proud to report that airlines vastly improved their plans,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said Thursday.


Given the other sorts of proposals that have been floating around — fining airlines $55,000 per passenger for cancellations caused by staffing; taking the European approach and requiring airlines to pay travelers hundreds of dollars for some canceled flights; and reassigning airline enforcement to state attorneys general — a chart might seem like a small step. Here’s how to understand its impact.


What actually just changed?


Depends whom you ask. According to the White House, the Department of Transportation and some consumer advocates, a lot has changed.


A few weeks ago, none of the major airlines guaranteed that they would cover meals or hotels when they were responsible for cancellations or significant delays, Jean-Pierre said. Now, eight cover hotels and nine cover meals. In a background briefing Wednesday, senior administration officials said no airline had offered complimentary ground transportation to and from a hotel for passengers stuck overnight. Faced with the dashboard, which unearths airline policies previously hidden in obscure PDFs, seven committed to doing so, they said, and many also altered their policies on rebooking passengers on other airlines. The officials commended airlines for changing so much, so quickly.


But according to the airlines, not much has changed. Most said they did little beyond tweaking some language to more clearly describe policies that were already in place. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines said that in response to the letter from Buttigieg, they clarified their rules on when passengers would receive compensation for canceled or delayed flights. But, they said, they had not made any substantive policy changes and had already offered hotel vouchers, meal vouchers and rebookings on other airlines if they could not provide reasonable alternatives themselves. United Airlines said it had shortened the length of delays required for a meal voucher by an hour, but that other policies were unchanged. Southwest said it had made no substantive changes but, rather, updated its customer service plan to better reflect policies already in place.


On the ground-transportation front, a Delta representative said it was misleading for the Department of Transportation to take credit for the change as Delta had always provided compensation for taxi services. Similarly, a United spokesperson said providing such transportation was a “long-standing United policy.”


Were airlines already committed to rebooking flights on a competitor if the original flight was significantly delayed for reasons within the airline’s control?


Several major carriers say they are committed to rebooking flights on another airline, although it’s unclear how often they have done this during the pandemic travel chaos. Paul Hudson, president of Flyersrights.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to consumer rights, said that over the past several decades, airlines typically only did this for “A-list travelers” flying on one of the legacy carriers. In 2016, Hudson’s group unsuccessfully petitioned the Department of Transportation to formalize the “reciprocity rule,” which has been voluntary since 1978.


What happens if the airlines don’t offer what’s on the chart?


The hope seems to be that by publishing airlines’ promises, the airlines will be more likely to adhere to them. Asked if he was shaming the airlines into doing the right thing, Buttigieg, in a recent phone interview, offered a more positive framing.


“There’s no shame in doing the right thing,” he said. He also called the dashboard a “tool for transparency” — language echoed by Jean-Pierre’s announcement that the goal was to “give Americans more transparency about what airlines owe them.”


If airlines don’t meet the commitment stated in the chart, the Department of Transportation said passengers could submit a complaint. Of course, that won’t immediately help.


Are airlines capable of fundamentally changing without fines or stricter rules?


The airlines say they are, noting that they have already made major changes to schedules and staffing, and as a result, things have gotten better, with cancellations falling notably in recent weeks. Some analysts back them up, arguing that the airlines are implicitly incentivized to reduce cancellations, given that they cost money and create major headaches.


But nearly 40 state attorneys general don’t think so. Just as Department of Transportation officials were giving a press briefing on their recent successes getting the airlines to change, the attorneys general published a letter arguing that the Department of Transportation’s approach is so weak that it should be stripped of its ability to regulate aviation. State attorneys general — and perhaps another federal agency — should be given that role instead, they wrote.


In a follow-up email, New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella, who was among those who signed the letter, offered his review of the interactive dashboard. “Will the new dashboard give paying air customers a timeline of when the Transportation Secretary and his colleagues will start to enforce the law and provide them some basic consumer protections?” he wrote.


The week before the dashboard launch, Buttigieg said he was open to fining the airlines and called fines “an important part of our tool kit,” which he has used in the past, but should be part of “a bigger framework.”



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