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Flight delays and poor customer service are at unacceptable levels, Buttigieg says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you've tried flying anywhere this summer, there's a fair chance your flight was delayed or even canceled. And with the busy Labor Day weekend coming up, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is warning the airlines that they're going to face consequences if they can't improve operations and customer service. NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper sat down with Buttigieg in Minneapolis.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Since Memorial Day weekend, U.S. airlines have canceled more than 50,000 flights, while more than half a million have been delayed, according to the flight tracking site flightaware.com. That amounts to more than 1 in 4 of all scheduled flights this summer. And like many travelers, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is frustrated.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Look. Americans have had experiences with cancellations, delays and poor customer service that just aren't at an acceptable level. We understand there are some things they're up against - extreme weather or other situations that that are beyond their control. But a lot of things are in their control. And one of those things is how they treat customers.

SCHAPER: Buttigieg says the airlines haven't been transparent in telling passengers what they're legally entitled to for flight disruptions.

BUTTIGIEG: For example, if you get canceled - for any reason, you don't take your flight. They have to offer you a cash refund. If you'd rather take miles or a different flight, fine. But that's up to you, not them. They've got to give you a refund. That's a basic rule. That's the floor.

SCHAPER: So Buttigieg says the Department of Transportation will be rolling out a new website next week that will explain passengers' rights and each airline's policies.

BUTTIGIEG: So you can actually compare and know your rights before you choose to purchase that ticket and before you board that plane.

SCHAPER: While Buttigieg acknowledges some flight disruptions are due to severe weather and air traffic control problems, he says the airline's aggressive scheduling has made matters worse.

BUTTIGIEG: A lot of this, we're finding, has to do with the airlines not being prepared to staff the tickets that they're selling. And the remedy to that is, of course, No. 1, more staff but No. 2, in the meantime, realistic scheduling so that they know they're only collecting revenue on the routes they can actually serve.

SCHAPER: Many airlines did trim back their flight schedules some this summer, and they're cutting even more flights this fall. As for critics who say Buttigieg refuses, to take action against airlines that deny customers refunds, Buttigieg says this.

BUTTIGIEG: We've got nearly a dozen active investigations going on right now. They're not something that you can just do by fiat or that I can just decide one fine day we're going to impose, but we're taking this very seriously.

SCHAPER: The industry group Airlines for America says its members comply with federal laws and regulations regarding cash refunds and issued $21 billion in refunds to customers over the past two years. The group also says the airlines are committed to working collaboratively with the federal government to overcome the industry's current headwinds. David Schaper, NPR News, Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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