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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced on Monday that the agency introduced rules requiring airlines to reimburse customers who incur expenses due to certain delayed and canceled flights, a move which comes as the industry faces elevated demand and a constrained labor force.
The proposed rules, which would apply when an airline delays a flight for more than three hours or cancels a flight for a “controllable” reason, would mandate that the firms offer compensation for stranded passengers, as well as a meal or meal voucher, overnight accommodations, and ground transportation between the airport and hotel.
“When an airline causes a flight cancellation or delay, passengers should not foot the bill,” Buttigieg said in a statement, noting that the proposed reimbursement rules would be the first in American history.
The move comes after Southwest Airlines experienced holiday travel disruptions last year due to extreme winter weather conditions, staff shortages, and an outdated computer system. The carrier canceled thousands of flights days after other carriers had resumed normal operations. Buttigieg told the company, which has since promised to compensate passengers for all expenses incurred during that time, that the disruptions were “unacceptable” and promised that his agency would exercise “the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers” to ensure customers are reimbursed.
The new proposals also occur as the sector faces a severely limited pool of available pilots and frontline staff. Carriers previously encouraged commercial pilots to retire as worldwide lockdowns caused demand for air travel to plummet in the spring of 2020, worsening a previous trend toward a lack of available pilots. Elevated prices for airline tickets and a rapid return in travel demand, however, are now prompting lawmakers to consider the problem.
Regional Airline Association CEO Faye Malarkey Black told members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month that more than 50% of current pilots would be forced to retire within the next 15 years because of federal rules mandating that pilots exit their positions once they reach 65 years of age, even as only 8% of pilots are below 30 years of age due to the high cost of flight education. Buttigieg has opposed legislation that would increase the retirement threshold to 67 years of age, contending that “the answer is to make sure we have as many and as good pilots ready to take their place, to have a stronger pipeline.”