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Will flight delays, cancellations impact Thanksgiving, Christmas travel?

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The long queues, canceled flights, staffing shortages and customer service nightmares that have plagued the airline industry for the last year may be receding, but not going away anytime soon.

That’s according to US Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who told the Deseret News on Friday that he expects the current problems to continue through Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“It will take a while for the pilot workforce to get back to pre-COVID levels,” he said in an interview, noting that in some cases demand is higher now than before the pandemic.

“I don’t think this can be resolved overnight,” Buttigieg said.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, center, speaks with Salt Lake City Mayor Jenny Wilson and Summit County Council Chairperson Chris Robinson after a roundtable discussion with firefighters and community leaders at Unified Fire Authority Station 119 in Emigration Canyon on Friday, May 12 July 29, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Buttigieg spoke to the Deseret News on Friday while in Utah, where he revealed new funds for infrastructure projects alongside Gov. Spencer Cox, part of the recent $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. Buttigieg also met with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, local leaders and firefighters about preventing wildfires at the Emigration Canyon Fire Station.

And while transportation resilience was the topic of the day, the secretary says his department still has daily discussions with the airline industry.

“I often have conversations with them. And what we’ve seen is encouraging, but there’s still a long way to go,” he said.

Cancellation rates aren’t as high as they were in spring and early summer, hovering around 3% or 4% — they’ve now dropped to around 2%, which is starting to seem “normal,” Buttigieg said.

Additionally, some airlines have made efforts to improve pilot pay while dedicating more resources to customer service and changing policies to accommodate inconsistent fares and refunds. Some airlines are also changing their flight schedules “to align with the reality of their staffing.”

“We’ve certainly seen improvements since the unacceptable conditions surrounding Memorial Day weekend,” Buttigieg said.

But the problems persist – in the US over 12,000 flights were delayed on the weekend of July 4th with more than 1,000 cancellations. London Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport both have recently reduced passenger capacity and forced airlines to cancel flights. German airline Lufthansa almost all flights cancelled in Frankfurt and Munich this week, thousands of passengers stranded.

Delta aircraft are pictured at Salt Lake City Airport on Friday, July 29, 2022. The long lines, canceled flights, staff shortages and customer service nightmares that have plagued the airline industry for the last year may be on the decline, but won’t go away anytime soon, according to US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

And as of Friday afternoon, there were nearly 1,600 flight delays and 278 cancellations in the US. according to FlightAware.

There are a number of factors – many airlines blame airports and governments for congested airspace and air traffic control staffing issues. Bad weather canceled a number of flights again this year. And across the board, both airlines and airports are struggling with staffing shortages.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently submitted an invoice That would raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67 to keep more people in the job.

Buttigieg is not convinced by this approach.

“I’m not comfortable with anything that might affect safety,” he said, “… If they had the data that showed there would be no safety impact, we could talk about it, but so far feel I am not comfortable with all the proposals that appear to be about relaxing safety rules.”

Buttigieg said some solutions could come from his department — others, particularly anything related to security, would require an act of Congress.

As for the leverage the Department of Transportation can pull, Buttigieg pointed to the Consumer Protection Program, which is currently investigating a number of complaints about airlines not issuing refunds, some of which will soon lead to enforcement action.

Working together to manage national airspace is another priority, he said, to address bottlenecks that often result in delays or cancellations.

The department also evaluates the definition of unfair and deceptive practices “to make sure it gives us the space to do what we need to do,” Buttigieg said.

Travelers will walk through Salt Lake City Airport on Friday, July 29, 2022. Long lines, canceled flights, staffing shortages and customer service nightmares may have plagued the airline industry in the last year on the wane, according to US Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, but it’s not going away anytime soon.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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