Transportation Pete Buttigieg has been jawboning U.S. airlines to do better for customers. But his complaint is that their operations have been worse than before the pandemic – implicitly accepting that the way things used to be in 2019 were good enough.
One of his specific asks is that airlines take care of customers during controllable delays like lack of crew or mechanical problems.
- For the most part they already do this
- He’s their regulator, wielding broad power – and said if airlines didn’t do this on their own he’d push forward regulation (which would likely have required more than airlines will do on their own)
- The federal government shoveled 10- and 11-figure subsidies to airlines during the pandemic
- And they want more (capital investment in airports and air traffic control, subsidies for new sources of aviation fuel)
Buttigieg had written airline chief executives asking them “at a minimum” to provide meal vouchers for delays of three hours or more and lodging for those who must wait overnight because of disruptions within the carrier’s control.
Generally speaking airlines were already on the hook for lodging and meals during controllable delays, however they’ve made explicit commitments here that include reimbursement when they can’t provide a hotel and specific amounts for meals.
American Airlines revised its customer service plan to say they’d reimburse reasonable hotel costs if the airline couldn’t provide one. That’s in stark contrast to a blanket policy explained a year ago that they would not reimburse hotel expenses unless legally required to do so.
United will reimburse up to $200 for hotel when they can’t provide one, though you can argue for a higher amount if you can demonstrate that it’s reasonable under the circumstances.
Delta, by contrast, will only give you a travel voucher worth up to $100 if they cannot find you a hotel.
Meal and transportation policies are similarly updated. Generally meal costs of some kind will be covered on delays of 3 hours or more, with $12 being a common amount. Another major change here is that these vouchers represent a blast from the past, scrip to spend at the airport, and may limit use of American Airlines “refresh and refuel” carts containing sandwiches, snack boxes, bottles of water and similar.
Snack boxes cost the airline as little as $1.47 apiece. It’s a move that US Airways management made 8 years ago after taking over the airline. Long delays will now be more costly, which serves as a greater incentive to avoid long delays though also means a higher cost to provide transportation which gets factored into whether or not scheduling a flight makes sense.
Let’s not oversell this.
- When delays and cancellations are outside of the control of the airline – such as weather and air traffic control delays – carriers aren’t obligated to provide rooms or meals.
- At the end of the day this is mostly saying they are going to do what they already do, but there is some consumer benefit at the margin to explicitly committing to reimbursement and to (in some cases) dollar amounts for meals based on an explicit threshold for delays.
- We’re going to have to wait to see how airlines handle these requests in practice, and what hoops customers will have to jump through to demonstrate that an airline was unable to provide accommodations when required in order to obtain a refund.
Almost no politician ever loses complaining about airlines, and Buttigieg can say he got something for consumers even if the actual benefit will be at the margin.