Pete Buttigieg faces crisis and opportunity as airline cancellations mount

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WASHINGTON – Air travel is smelly right now, creating the kind of crisis that a politically skilled and ambitious secretary of transportation might turn to in his favour.

Americans want someone — anyone — to fix the problems: delays, cancellations, skyrocketing ticket prices.

The stakes could hardly be greater for the official tasked with finding solutions: Pete Buttigieg, the 40-year-old former presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Flying fiascos represents the first major test of whether he is qualified enough to lead an agency that dwarfs the small city government he once ran. Compared to South Bend, DOT has nearly 50 times the workforce and 370 times larger budget. His performance is under scrutiny from his former rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vatu. and others, promising to shape his future within the Democratic Party.

“You have a mayor of a small city with a small public transportation department that is now responsible for transportation in a huge country,” said Ari Rabin Haft, a former top Sanders aide. “The question is, is this an appropriate qualification?”

The turmoil is a plot twist for Buttigieg, A prominent member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet. Up to this point, he has benefited from his position and has proven to be an asset within a department where overall approval ratings have reached record lows. Buttigieg maintained a strong presence on television and social media, reassured the black communities who were kind to him in his 2020 presidential nomination, and crossed the country to promote the infrastructure package that was Biden’s signature achievement. Since he is so well known and his name is often put forward as a potential contender in 2024 in the event Biden does not want to be reelected, nearly everything Buttigieg does is getting a lot of attention. If he somehow manages to reduce the series of flight delays and cancellations, it will give Biden a much-needed boost — while giving his executive credentials more weight.

Steve Elmendorf, a former Democratic leadership aide in the House of Representatives and a supporter of Buttigieg’s campaign, said the cabinet position that Buttigieg landed after Biden’s victory in 2020 “is all in positive.” “Unless you screw it up.”

There is no single cause for the problems that exacerbate flyers. Airlines face a shortage of pilots, while the federal government struggles to fully staff security checkpoints, creating long queues to screen passengers. The Covid-19 lockdowns have created pent-up demand for travel that the airline industry has struggled to meet.

Sanders, who did not rule out a third presidential run, sent Buttigieg pointed letter She pressed him last month to take “immediate action” to reduce flight delays and protect passenger rights.

“Taxpayers saved the airline industry during its time of need,” Sanders wrote. “Now, it is the responsibility of the airline industry and the Department of Transportation to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that the flying public and crew members are able to reach their destinations on time and without delay.”

Sanders released the letter publicly, and Buttigieg called the senator privately to say his department would consider his suggestions, a person familiar with the call told NBC News.

Transportation officials say Buttigieg is taking many of the steps the crisis requires. They point to efforts to demand better customer service, including immediate cash back, and say the DOT’s consumer protection team has expanded significantly, while acknowledging that there is still a backlog. Buttigieg also offered to work closely with airlines to identify solutions and talked about promoting programs to train a younger generation of pilots.

“The Department expects that when Americans buy an airline ticket, they will get where they need to go safely, affordably, and reliably,” said Ben Haley, a department spokesman who worked on Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. The Department of Transportation’s collaboration with airlines has contributed to some positive steps, including airlines setting more reasonable schedules, an increased focus on customer service and an increase in worker wages to improve employment. The Secretary has and will continue to take action to protect the rights of airline passengers and consumer rights, and when airlines fail to fulfill their responsibilities, they will be held accountable.”

Among federal departments, transportation has historically been a stagnant type — heavy on workload and traditionally light on opportunities to shine. By contrast, Buttigieg has the good fortune of running a department whose work is central to the president’s greatest achievement to date. His department will distribute billions of dollars to highway, rail, aviation and other public construction projects funded by the historic infrastructure spending package that Biden brought into law last year.

But Buttigieg is also a television messenger deployed by the White House for other purposes. He often appears in the news with the full blessing of the White House and may ramp up the campaign trail this fall for Democrats. He made more 15 regional television appearances from June 1 to mid-July, according to the White House, more than any other Cabinet member. (He ranked fourth in national television appearances among the Cabinet of that period; the White House did not provide for a longer period of time.)

He is looking for ways to combine his personal story and the work at hand. This month, after one of his flights was cancelled, Buttigieg shared his ordeal on Twitter, to encourage passengers to know their right to request a cashback instead of accepting travel credits. And last week it appeared in “Fox News Sunday” To discuss the growing frustrations with air travel. The interview went viral — not because of anything Buttigieg said about air travel, but because of his comments in support of those who protested peacefully outside a steakhouse where Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was dining.

In Oval Office sessions, Biden has been known to teases him: “How did you get off the TV and get into this meeting?”

What is needed now, though, is not a messenger to argue with the Fox News hosts, but a stern administration ready to use every tool necessary to reduce flight disruptions, passenger advocates say. While Buttigieg’s power to stop delays is limited, Sanders recommended a few steps in his letter: Buttigieg should fine airlines for scheduling flights they cannot fully crew; fined for flights that are more than two hours late; They are demanding a refund for flights that are more than an hour late, as European rules currently require.

“He’s the only mayor that airline passengers have,” said Bill McGee, senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Freedoms Project, a nonprofit focused on inclusion and equity in the corporate world. “If Pete Buttigieg does not stand up and fight for air travelers, they will not be so lucky. That is the truth.”

McGee said Buttigieg could force airlines to be more transparent about their flight and crew records. Instead, Buttigieg has taken a softer approach to the industry, reprimanding airlines in some cases and sitting down with them in others. Sanders wrote approvingly in his letter that Ray Hood, Barack Obama’s first president of transportation, cracked down when dissatisfied passengers got stuck for hours on planes that hadn’t left the runway, imposing a new rule that fined airlines up to $27,500 per passenger in such a way. cases.

Crises come and go these days and there’s always the possibility that Buttigieg won’t always take the blame if the airline industry recovers.

“People move very quickly because in the airline industry, there is a new story every day,” said Sarah Nelson, president of the Flight Attendant Association. “But what will continue are the connections he’s been making every day at work.”

Some of the political advantages that come his way are the envy of potential competitors. Part of Buttigieg’s job is to cut the ribbons and announce grants that have been underwritten by the $1 trillion infrastructure bill. He came to Los Angeles International Airport this month to offer a $50 million grant to improve surrounding roads and parking areas.

Some supporters of Vice President Kamala Harris have expressed their displeasure with his role, complaining that while he gets popular tasks such as making grants, she has been given the commendable task of helping to resolve the border crisis.

He also used the job to build bridges of the metaphorical kind, which might give him an advantage in future Democratic contests. Buttigieg gained little traction with black voters as a presidential candidate, but as cabinet secretary, he made extensive outreach to black constituencies, delivering speeches promising to end racist road and transit policies that left minority neighborhoods isolated.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D. Connecticut: “He’s a clear leader now and will only grow in stature, especially because of his performance as Secretary of Transportation. Consumers are smart enough to see that the problem really is with the airlines. They are, after all, responsible for planes, staff, cancellations, bad practices, and bad management.”

White House officials seem pleased with Buttigieg’s performance.

“Pete is clearly a very talented messenger and we think he’s doing an amazing job on behalf of the administration,” said a White House source who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “Even with his media successes and his travels, I think people are trying to extrapolate some kind of political agenda, but his media appearances and his travels are all done in collaboration with the White House, as is every Cabinet member.”

The source added that Cabinet secretaries across the Biden administration, including Gina Raimondo of Commerce and Jennifer Granholm of the energy company, have also been reliable spokespersons on television while acknowledging that issues such as infrastructure, supply chain challenges and airline scheduling problems have put Buttigieg in A unique position.

As for Harris and Buttigieg, both sides deny any ill will – and any suggestion that Biden will not seek re-election. Their allies say past and possibly future presidential rivals are working collaboratively.

This month, Buttigieg sat down with one of Harris’s closest confidants, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile, in New Orleans. Was in town to talk at Al Jawhar Festival of Culture, A tribute to black culture and society.

Over lunch at Cochon Butcher — oysters for Brazile, muffaletta for Buttigieg — they talked about infrastructure, black entrepreneurship opportunities and politics, Brasil recalls. Another topic was the upcoming Fourth of July holiday and the possibility of major airlines. She said Buttigieg recognized the danger and mentioned a phone call he had with airline executives.

He asked Brasil how he had heard about the restaurant he had chosen near her house.

Harris told him about it.

Brasil said Harris and Buttigieg have a good relationship.

“They are all talking,” she said. “Believe me.”



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