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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg discusses penalties on Southwest Airlines

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Southwest Airlines will pay for last year's holiday air travel meltdown. The Department of Transportation says the airline will have to fork over $140 million in penalties for violating consumer protection laws. That's after nearly 17,000 flights were canceled, stranding more than 2 million passengers. The Biden administration is pressuring all airlines to respond to consumer rights. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is with us now. Secretary, Southwest Airlines told us they were pleased with what they call a consumer-friendly settlement and that they were quick to learn and invest in improvements after last year's meltdown. Does that claim, Secretary, line up with what you have learned about them?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, this is the toughest penalty, by far, assessed against an airline for customer service failures. The $35 million cash component in fines is a multiple of the most that we have ever done. And then the majority of it will be over and above that $35 million going to the Treasury - value going back to customers, back to passengers. So if there's one thing we agree on here, it's that passengers will benefit from this penalty and the enforcement actions surrounding what took place a year ago.

MARTÍNEZ: Is Southwest prepared now to deal with something like this if it happened again?

BUTTIGIEG: I think we just gave them 140 million reasons to make sure that this never happens again. And they have taken a lot of steps. And this is not just about Southwest, who we are holding accountable with this enforcement action. This is about the entire industry sending a signal that you should not be cutting corners because if you fail your passengers, we will hold you accountable.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. The thing is, with passengers - and I hear it all the time - I'm an airline passenger, too - it sometimes feels like airlines feel like they're - you know, the comfort and satisfaction for customers is just no longer a priority for them. So how do you change that kind of mindset?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, we saw major problems, especially with the performance of airlines last year. We applied a lot of pressure, and the airlines have made a lot of changes. We have gotten enforceable commitments from virtually all of the major airlines on things like taking care of your costs of a hotel or ground transportation or rebooking if they get you stuck. Also, fewer people are getting stuck in the first place.

We just got through the Thanksgiving holiday. The Sunday after Thanksgiving saw the most air travel passengers in American history - 2.9 million - and less than one half of 1% of flights canceled. So we have seen improvements, but we really think the proof needs to continue to be in the results. And with this historic enforcement action, we're sending a message reminding airlines that there are very strong economic reasons to meet their requirements, in addition to it just being the right thing to do.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you mentioned Thanksgiving, Secretary. Another holiday weekend, travel weekend - or I guess week - is coming up. What's your prediction for air travel just for next week and maybe the coming year? Are you hoping for a collective sigh of relief if it goes over smoothly?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the thing I can predict most confidently is that there will be more days of record travel. We saw that through the summer holidays and, as I mentioned, at Thanksgiving. In terms of the performance of the airlines, I will say this. Through those summer holidays, as well as Thanksgiving, they've done much better than they did a year or year and a half ago. And the other thing I can confidently predict is that if you do run into a problem, you will be better protected than a year and a half ago because of the protections we've added. We encourage people to go to flightrights.gov to learn more about what you can expect and demand as an airline passenger today.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Thank you very much.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.