Mayor Pete threatens the airlines

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

A funny thing happened on the way to the Big Apple, at least for Pete Buttigieg, who is allegedly our Secretary of Transportation. He had just concluded a meeting with the heads of the major airlines in Washington and was heading out for another scheduled event in New York City. But after arriving at the airport, his flight was canceled. Buttigieg wound up having to drive instead. That was apparently what it took to get Mayor Pete’s attention, despite the fact that air travelers have been dealing with cancelations and huge delays for quite a while now. But fear not. Buttigieg is on the job and plans to do something to correct the situation. He’s going to threaten the airlines with punishment by the federal government if they don’t make things run more smoothly. I’m sure that will fix everything. (Associated Press)

The day after Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with airline leaders to quiz them about widespread flight disruptions, his own flight was canceled and he wound up driving from Washington to New York.

“That 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,” Buttigieg told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday.

Buttigieg said he is pushing the airlines to stress-test their summer schedules to ensure they can operate all their planned flights with the employees they have, and to add customer-service workers. That could put pressure on airlines to make additional cuts in their summer schedules.

Much the same as the situation with the way Joe Biden and Jennifer Granholm are struggling to deal with fuel shortages and gas prices, we appear to have a Transportation Secretary who is attempting to tinker with a huge industry while having no idea how it actually works. Simply “ordering” the airlines to make all the flights take off on time and threatening them with fines isn’t going to fix the current crises that the airlines are facing. What it’s going to do is cause them to simply start canceling even more flight routes in advance. That means that when you’re trying to book a flight this summer, there either won’t be any seats available or you’ll be paying a lot more if you manage to find one.

As we discussed here recently, the airline industry is dealing with a convergence of multiple critical issues, most of which are beyond its control, and air service won’t be returning to normal any time soon. They could certainly benefit from some competent help from the government to tackle some of these problems, though that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. Other problems have no obvious quick fixes available.

First of all, the airlines are dealing with a critical shortage of pilots. When the pandemic lockdowns began and air travel almost entirely stalled, thousands of pilots were put out of work. Many of them have moved on to other types of employment and are not coming back. Others chose to retire. The major airlines are already attempting everything they can think of to address the issue. They have lowered the minimum requirements for both education and flight hours to pilot commercial airlines, alarming many travelers. They have raised the maximum age for retirement to keep some pilots on the job longer. They’ve increased salaries. There’s only so much they can do.

The airlines are also facing increasing issues when it comes to getting enough jet fuel to keep the fleet in the air. This is being driven by our shrinking number of refineries and shortages of not only jet fuel, but diesel to ship the fuel from the refineries to the airports. That means it takes longer to refuel the planes even if they have enough fuel at the airport, causing further delays and driving up prices even higher.

Industry analysts believe it will take at least a decade before the number of available, qualified pilots gets back to the point where they can meet the demand. How the ongoing fuel and energy crisis ends is anybody’s guess. But none of these problems are going to magically disappear just because you threaten Delta with a few million dollars in fines.