The scheduling meltdown at Southwest Airlines is one for the business record books, and the carrier will pay a price for months or years in damaged reputation. The only worse result for seething passengers would be to put Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in charge.
Don’t laugh. Buttigieg’s department said it will investigate Southwest’s “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays.” It will also “take action” to hold the carrier “accountable,” as if the airline isn’t eager enough to make things right.
Congress is also doing what it does best: Shoot the wounded. Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell announced a probe, while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is using the mess to complain as usual about airline consolidation. She wants Buttigieg to block a merger between JetBlue and Spirit Airlines.
But Democrats care less about stranded passengers than they do about gaining more federal control over the airline industry. Carriers are already required to refund when flights are canceled or “significantly changed.” Buttigieg proposed a rule in August that requires airlines to provide refunds if flights are delayed more than three hours, increase the number of connections, land at a different airport or use a “downgraded” type of aircraft. The rule would also force airlines that received federal pandemic aid to provide credits if a passenger says he can’t fly because of COVID.
In mid-December, a bipartisan group of 34 state attorneys general wrote Buttigieg demanding the rule also give state AGs new power to enforce airline consumer-protection laws. The AGs want to force airlines to advertise and sell only flights for which they have “adequate personnel to fly and support,” as well as pay “significant fines” for delays or cancellations that are “not weather-related.” But airlines can’t control the weather, and sometimes crews fail to show or end up stranded.
Airlines have struggled this year, but government has contributed to the problem. COVID lockdowns cost them business for two years. The federal aid that kept them afloat came with a mandate not to lay off or furlough employees. This caused airlines to offer retirement and buyout packages to preserve cash, leading to a pilot and crew shortage.
Buttigieg’s new rule won’t reduce turbulence. Some airlines already lure customers with the promise of refunds for delays under three hours. Refund policies are built into ticket prices, allowing passengers to choose their level of protection. Stripping airlines of their ability to compete on refunds won’t help customers.
Requiring carriers to add unnecessary employees is inefficient, a sop to unions, and a recipe for higher fares. Imposing fines for non-weather-related delays or cancellations will put new pressure on airlines to cut other corners. The last thing the nation needs is 50 new state airline regulators.
Washington receded from airline management in the 1970s, and the ensuing competition opened air travel to the masses. Politicians love to kick an industry when it’s down, but passengers can take their market revenge on Southwest without political help that will make air travel worse and more expensive.