Bernie Sanders Just Announced 4 Dumb Ideas To Fix Air Travel

Bernie Sanders, like all of us, has some valid gripes about air travel today. He’s come out with a set of solutions he’d like the Department of Transportation to impose through new regulation. This includes forcing airlines to skip crucial maintenance, and requiring flight attendants to work when they’re sick with Covid-19.

Airlines Have Been Bad Actors Throughout The Pandemic

Despite giving airlines $54 billion in direct taxpayer money so that they would keep everyone employed and ready to fly when passengers returned, airlines shed staff. For instance Delta eliminated 31% of its employee count. American paid pilots to stay home, rather than ensuring they had the takeoffs and landings needed to remain certified. American and Delta also retired aircraft.

Now that demand is back, airlines don’t have the staff to operate the flights they’ve been selling to customers. Several carriers cut their schedules back in advance, and flights are still cancelling for reasons other than weather. (Some of the blame is on the FAA which is understaffed in air traffic control, but that’s not the biggest problem.)

It takes time to hire and train. And there was real management experience lost as airlines pushed out veterans during the pandemic. This was all legal – after all, they (or their lobbyists) drafted their own bailout language.

Bernie Sanders Has Solutions

So what to do about airline operational failures? Senator Bernie Sanders demands three things:

  1. refunds for one hour flight delays and meals and hotel rooms for four hour delays

  2. $27,500 fines per passenger for two hour domestic tarmac delays and three hour international tarmac delays

  3. $15,000 fines per passenger on all domestic flights delayed 2 hours and all international flights delayed 3 hours for reasons other than weather

  4. $55,000 fines per passengers for cancelling flights “that they know cannot be fully staffed.”

Passengers Are Going To Be Hoping Their Flight Is Delayed

Currently passengers facing significant delays are entitled to a refund. Sanders wants the DOT to define one hour as signficant, and to force airlines to provide refunds “and alternative transportation” – so a one hour delay means zero revenue and full cost of travel, plus “airlines must be required to cover the meals and lodging for all passengers” in the event of delays of four hours or more “in addition to a ticket refund and alternative means of transportation.”

Passengers would be entitled to air travel for free and a free hotel room for every four hour delay. Here Sanders makes no exception for weather (or government air traffic control, security, or customs and immigration) issues.

More Tarmac Delay Fines

Reducing the threshold from 4 and 3 hours, to 3 and 2 hours, for tarmac delays doesn’t seem in any way related to the issues airlines are having at the moment. There have been some long tarmac delays recently in Texas due to weather, where planes divert and can’t be brought into the gate and pilots determine it’s unsafe to disembark an aircraft due to lightning. No fines are due in those cases anyway. This proposal is something of a non-sequitur.

Big Fines For Delayed Flights

A fully loaded American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER that delays 2-3 hours would incur a $4.6 million fine. That’s a strong incentive for preventive maintenance, but it’s also a disincentive to address maintenance issues on the spot.

Borderline issue? Pressure mechanics and pilots to run with it because making the right decision is way too costly. It also hands an operational gun to pilot unions in contract negotiations. Pilots deciding to ‘work to rule’ not only inconvenience passengers, but incur liability in the millions for their airline per flight.

And if the fine applies just to delays and not cancellations, this basically forces an airline to turn every delay into a cancellation (and therefore cancel downline flights as well).

Requires Airlines To Force Workers To Show Up Sick

Airlines have been trimming their schedules in advance in response to operational challenges, in order to rebook customers and prevent them from getting stuck at the airport and ruining their trips.

They have also been publishing schedules they’d like to operate, and then 2-4 months in advance adjusting those schedules based on facts on the ground such as Covid restrictions, closed borders, and aircraft not available because of regulatory challenges between the FAA and Boeing.

If an airline cancels a flight due to lack of staffing, they could be liable for $55,000 per passenger if they cancel the flight. That means airlines must absolutely not cancel flights due to staffing. They also cannot operate profitably without scheduling their planes to fly. The only way out of that challenge, since it takes time to fully staff, is to require workers to show up sick.

American Airlines didn’t have many operational challenges during the peak holiday period when they offered bonus pay for picking up extra flights and a massive perfect attendance bonus. Some flight attendants were making an extra two to three months’ pay. This overlapped the first Omicron wave of the pandemic, and crew were showing up sick.

American will say that’s never their intention of course, but when a flight attendant just needs to work one more week without missing a trip in order to pocket an extra couple months’ pay, it’s tough to stay home especially with a mild (but infectious) case. This happened seemingly a lot in late December. And it’s what all airlines would have to do to avoid $55,000 per passenger fines.

Here’s How To Fix The Airlines

There’s not enough competition in an airline industry protected and subsidized by government. We should end the practice of government-owned airports entering long-term gate leases that exclude new carrier entrants. We should eliminate takeoff and landing slots at congested airports (a government-granted property right that says only incumbent carriers may fly) and replace that with congestion pricing. We should allow foreign ownership of U.S. airlines. And we should repeal the liability shield courts have concluded exists within the Airline Deregulation Act and allow consumers to sue under state contract ‘duties of good faith and fair dealing’ claims.

In other words we should hold airlines responsible for their actions towards consumers, stop letting them pick our pockets, and allow competition to flourish in the industry. Then in order to grow capacity, we should expand use of airport P3 programs and spin off air traffic control into a separate entity – so that the FAA isn’t regulating itself, and so we can make long-term technology investments outside of the vagaries of annual federal appropriations cycles.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You need only look at Bernie Sanders’ political track record to figure out the likelihood that any of its will be enacted. He, like Pocahantas, look extreme even in Europe.

  2. Ah, yes, fining airlines for cases where their flight is completely ready to go, but is prevented from going anywhere by weather or the FAA makes total sense. That’s definitely a conspiracy by airlines, as they just love having $100 million jets sitting around unable to earn revenue while paying the crew to sit there and wait for a clearance and then having to deal with misconnecting pax and flight cancellations. Glad the Bern has all this greedy capitalist stuff figured out.

  3. The proposal reminds me of when Wizz Air used to (they may still have this, I have not flown them in a while) have an ad-on benefit for extra flight credit if the flight arrived late (I think the threshold might have been an hour but I am not sure).

    I remember being really happy when something caused my flight to be delayed and felt that the add-on meant that I wouldn’t either way.

  4. Oh boy, the trolls are gonna come to roost on this one. Wait, already begun…

  5. Fines totaling thousands of dollars? And who would get all that money?
    Comrade Bernie needs to check himself into a psycho hospital and bounce around in a room with padded walls.

  6. You’d think if a company receives a handout worth BILLIONS of dollars with the purpose of helping their loyal employees, then they’d actually use it for that purpose, instead of laying employees off and hurting your own company. Instead, in typical corporate fashion, fattened their own pockets along with their stockholders pockets. Can’t wait for the next “bailout”!

  7. HAHA! This is brilliant. Having people work when they have Covid and then cutting back on maintenance. When the planes crash they can blame those deaths on the virus. All it’ll do is serve to inflate the Covid numbers even more. 1 million deaths?… Nope, we’re pushing for 2 million!

  8. ‘Bernie Sanders Just Announced 4 Dumb Ideas To Fix Air Travel.’

    What other kind of idea whould he have?

  9. Tim Dunn,

    Trump looked more extreme in Europe than Bernie Sanders and “Pocahontas”.

    Still does.

  10. Bernie Sanders is just shooting a rocket over the bow of the ship. It’s nothing but signaling as it won’t pass the de facto McConnell-controlled Senate.

  11. I would like to see someone address the issue with delayed flights and compensation. I actually think Europe has done a great job with that. I do like your ideas at the end.

  12. I love when the very people who passed the bailout turn around and act angry when the airlines use it in the most profitable (if unethical) way they can. Sure I am mad at airlines for taking taxpayer money and not using it to maintain a functioning airline system, but I am also mad at lazy and corrupt members of Congress who routinely pass huge spending bills without the slightest idea of where the money is going or how the legislation is written. No member of Congress who voted for these bailouts (Sanders (VT) – YEA) has the right to be angry at anyone other than themselves. The CARES Act runs 335 pages and was passed through both Houses in 72 hours. Nobody read it except the lobbyists who wrote it.

  13. The simple answer is something like the EU. That returns the money to the taxpayers and compensates the proper party. Why does Bernie think the govt deserves the revenue from these insane fines?

  14. Bernie is absolutely right. Until there are economic consequences for the airlines’ game of flight crew roulette, they will continue to disrupt the lives of their passengers with impunity. Yesterday I was once again victimized by American Airlines which cancelled my flights on two different itineraries and then sent me to a hotel that had no rooms available without any economic consequences. Although the fines proposed by Bernie may be excessive, the idea is meritorious. Without fines, they airlines will continue to abuse us as the DOT is basically an arm of the industry and represents the airlines and not us.

  15. “We should allow foreign ownership of U.S. airlines” LOL and be bought out by China? Great Idea! LOL

  16. @ Gary

    “Bernie Sanders…set of solutions…includes forcing airlines to skip crucial maintenance, and requiring flight attendants to work when they’re sick with Covid-19”

    Ah, no, Gary. That’s your projection. The letter does not directly address “just in need” maintenance practices nor an obligation for COVID sufferers to work.

    For a balanced (instead of wantonly histrionic trolling baiting) article, you could have easily:

    1. Noted how the proposals compare with the European model
    2. Mentioned the cited claim of a 98% reduction in tarmac delays achieved under the Obama instituted Tarmac delay rules
    3. That the suggestions are in response to decreasing standards of performance by the airlines

    Airlines need to adopt maintenance strategies, which balance reliable supply of product / service with risk of maintenance-related events delaying aircraft or rendering them unserviceable.

    Similarly, rosters need slack to accommodate rates of sick leave.

    Whereas your own proposals read well, surely, the consumer also needs the strength and clarity of a mandated system of reparation (like Europe)?

  17. @ vbscript2

    “Ah, yes, fining airlines for cases where their flight is completely ready to go, but is prevented from going anywhere by weather”

    Maybe actually read the original proposals in the context of the original letter (it is linked from the article) before making your loony do-loop routine gets triggered?

    Quote Sanders:

    “…for reasons that are not weather-related…”

    Even @ Gary got that bit right in his rush to publish and stir up the trolls.

    You might want also to consider the difference between preventive aircraft maintenance and how to balance such to optimise fleet usage, and, how to manage rosters that accommodate staff leave (undoubtedly predictable parameters to input into your staffing model based on historical datasets).
    Clue – airlines are (increasingly) screwing their customers through poor performance– how you gonna fix it?

  18. Geez, dolts piling on Bernie for starting negotiations by asking for the moon? Guess they didn’t read “art of the deal”.

    Euro-similar rules & fines are long overdue in the US. It’s over-time someone started asking for it. I’d much rather vote for those who advocate these kinds of actions more than the side still lying they won last time.

  19. @ David Miller

    “JBN – Sanders suggestions are asinine”

    Did you even bother to read the original suggestions or is your remark fatuous and you are just following the bevy of bleating bovine remarks herein?

    – Is there a problem to be addressed or not?
    – If so, what’s your solution?
    – In what manner are the proposals lacking (if you ever actually read them?

  20. @ Tommy Long

    “LOL and be bought out by China? Great Idea! LOL”

    I can’t speak for @ Gary, but suffice to say that it can be the case that foreign ownership is subject to imposed limitations. These can include a percentage limit on the proportion of a company owned by foreign interests (eg < 50%) and / or specific investments subject to government review / approval.

    (Let’s also remember the reported Russian investments in the Donald Duckling’s miasma of “business” dealings – bless!).

  21. @ Alan & @ David Miller

    Hey buddies, we can easily relieve you of those crazy voices in your heads through the good old fashioned practice of cranial trepanation…

  22. @ Doug

    “…I am also mad at lazy and corrupt members of Congress who routinely pass huge spending bills without the slightest idea of where the money is going or how the legislation is written… ”

    Right on – sure thing.

    But here we have an example of a politician who wants to hold said airlines to account, notably with reference to the USD54 billions taxpayer’s cash handed over.

    Yet some here are ranting and raging against such accountability (in most cases without any explanation for their hysterical reactions or alternative proposals)…;)

  23. @ JBN

    “…Although the fines proposed by Bernie may be excessive, the idea is meritorious…”

    The intelligence and reason strong in that one, it is…;)

  24. as i stand in check in line at airport
    & text that my flight has been caneled

    dammm i am with bernie

    will never vote for a treachorus treasonous dirty lying scumbagilican ever again

  25. In his dialog about the “Mrs. Grace L. Ferguson Airline & Storm Door Company”, comedian Bob Newhart said the the reason her ticket prices are so cheap is that they do away with the “frills and extras like maintenance and radar.” That’s what Vermont’s nutcase Senator Sanders figures will work…as he rides in first class. I’ve heard from more than one source that reservation agents used to have a six week training course which is now cut to two. Most go on the phone with little knowledge other than, “Good morning, XXXX Airline. My name is YYYY.” Then the backlog occurs when a supervisor has to step in and fix the mess created by novice reservation agents. Flight attendants have a twelve week course. The training is mandated by law. Now the new hire has his/her FAA certificate but then don’t show up for the flight. When called by scheduling, “Uh…I’m in CCCCC because we have a party at Lake ZZZZ. So I’m calling in sick!” “Uh, NO…you’re supposed to be on Flight 1234 to ….” “Well, I’m not gonna be there. So the new flight attendant gets eventually fired and the process starts all over.

  26. We carefully select our flights, especially to give us plenty of time in-between because of constant flight delays.

    We’re up to a minimum of 4 hours between flights now. But airlines continue to move morning flights to afternoon. Afternoon to evening.

    Just got notice ANOTHER of our flights moved from afternoon to evening putting us at serious risk of missing our connecting international flight.

    This gets old. If I WANTED to arrive at night, I would have selected that flight.

    Now I get to spend hours on hold trying to fix this crap.

    My favorite was the airline that moved it OWN connecting flight to landing AFTER the other had taken off. Zero common sense involved.

  27. I do consider four hours to be a significant delay. One hour, certainly not.

    Perhaps there is some middle ground. There is a significant issue at play if your flight is delayed for six hours. And also, I think Gary does a good job pointing out the unintended consequences from any rule, but specifically these time-based rules. On balance, however, the game has been constructed to where the only parties that are really held accountable for everyone’s decisions are the paying customers, who cannot sue, cannot force compensation, are sometimes left sleeping on the floor of airports. It’s clear the airlines cannot be trusted to run themselves in an efficient, ethical way after accepting so much subsidy and then turning around and having the summer they’re having.

    I think I would come out in favor of mandatory hotel rooms at a non-dump hotel and a $50 per passenger meal voucher for any flight that was scheduled to depart before 6 pm local time that is delayed beyond midnight. This ought to take care of the afternoon and evening thunderstorm issue while also providing an incentive to staff and schedule appropriately. Is this a perfect solution? No, certainly not, but it does provide a layer of protection for the average traveler that if they book a 2:30 pm departure, if the damned airline can’t get the flight off before midnight, they’ll get a hotel room. (And if you book the last flight of the night, you do so at your own risk, as the protection wouldn’t apply as the departure is after 6 pm local time.) This basically ensures that if an airline schedules a flight at any time prior to 6 pm, they commit to running the flight that day, or they have to own the consequences.

  28. More competition and innovation are key, not more government bailouts and micromanagement.
    Non-US carriers should be allowed to fly domestic US routes.
    Corrupt US politicians collude with corrupt US airlines to minimize competition for slots and terminals.
    ATC and TSA should be privatized.

  29. Of course these are all extreme, but if he were to start with reasonable terms they’d be scaled back. It’s like selling anything – you list an insane price then scale back to something reasonable. I’ll give him credit for actually coming up with some creative ideas.

    The hour delay is definitely extreme, but 3-4 hours to start compensating passengers is not a bad idea. Doesn’t have to be refunds (and shouldn’t be), but some form of compensation and even future flight credits (that can actually be fully used unlike the ones NK hands out which are nearly useless).

    Not sure how you’re suggesting that airlines would have incentive to fly planes that have mechanical issues. It is what it is. If there is a mechanical delay it is always in their best interest to get it fixed as fast as possible and they do that today. (Unless of course you’re Alitalia flying all the way to Italy with a broken wing…)

    There are a lot of faults that airlines have here and it’s not unreasonable to expect some form of compensation after taxpayers gave them massive amounts of cash to prevent this. Putting out schedules 11 months out is clearly no longer an option as they haven’t a clue how many people they will be able or willing to employ. It was short-sighted to let all of the senior level people go as clearly the junior levels have no clue to run an efficient operation.

    I do agree with you Gary that there is certainly not enough competition (which is why eliminating NK is a bad idea).

    Back to Bernie – he’s offering some ideas. Yeah they’re extreme, but reasonable terms are a great idea and really should be seriously looked at.

  30. Why would allowing foreign ownership of US carriers be beneficial? One does not have to be a US citizen to buy stock in a US airline. But foreign government ownership or ownership by foreign air carriers would not be beneficial.

  31. @Roberts975 foreign ownership (not foreign government ownership) of u.s. airlines is capped by law at 25%

    I wouldn’t mind seeing both Ryanair and Singapore Airlines take a crack at the U.S. market with U.S. subsidiaries

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