July 26, 2022

Warren, Padilla Urge DOT to Hold Airlines Accountable for Delayed and Canceled Flights, Promote Competition to Prevent Price Hikes

“Decades of deregulation and consolidation have created an airline industry that routinely heaps inconvenience and abuse on consumers. 

To put an end to these harmful consumer practices and safeguard competition in the industry, the Department must play a leading role by aggressively using the authority it has been given by Congress.”

Text of Letter (pdf)

Washington, D.C. — United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) sent a letter to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), Pete Buttigieg, urging DOT to fully utilize its statutory authority to protect consumers, promote competition in the airline industry and hold airlines accountable for delayed and canceled flights. In the letter, the lawmakers raised concerns about Americans’ air travel experiences, which have grown steadily worse over the past year, and laid out specific actions DOT can take to hold airlines accountable for avoidable delays and cancellations and stem the tide of airline consolidation. 

“By utilizing its existing licensing and rulemaking authority, the Department can improve experiences for travelers and help bring down exorbitant ticket prices driven in part by anticompetitive mergers,” wrote the lawmakers.

Over the past year, Americans’ air travel experiences have grown steadily worse. One in five flights has arrived behind schedule this year, while airlines have canceled flights four times as often during high-travel weekends than they did in 2019. Airlines have already canceled nearly 122,000 flights in 2022—more cancellations than occurred during all of 2021. Airline consumer complaints to the Department have increased threefold relative to pre-pandemic levels. Airlines have also increased flight overbookings, causing passengers to be involuntarily denied boarding nearly three times as often this year than they were in 2018. Unions are sounding the alarm that airlines are selling tickets for flights they know they will not be able to staff.

Since January 2022, prices for domestic flights have shot up 47 percent. Although airlines received $50 billion in government assistance, they have failed to issue at least $10 billion in refunds for flight cancellations throughout the pandemic, despite being required to do so by federal law.  

The Senators also called for DOT to play a stronger role in the review process for mergers in the airline industry. Under existing statutory provisions, transfers of operating certificates through merger are only permissible when the Secretary of Transportation determines such transfers are consistent with the public interest, which includes an evaluation of competition in the domestic airline industry.  

In the letter, the lawmakers highlight the following actions DOT could take to hold the airline industry accountable and help protect consumers:

  • Use its existing authority to protect consumers from a wide range of rampant unfair practices in the airline industry, including delays, cancellations, and involuntary re-bookings.
  • Promulgate concrete rules requiring airlines to refund passengers for significantly delayed flights—rather than making refund decisions on a case-by-case basis.
  • Impose fines on airlines for the delays and cancellations that result from their own poor planning in order to protect consumers from avoidable disruptions. The Secretary may order airlines and ticket agents to stop such practices and may issue fines of up to $37,377 per violation.
  • Use its full statutory authority to more vigorously address increasing consolidation and dwindling competition in our airline industry, including withholding operating certification and certificate transfers from airlines attempting anticompetitive mergers.