Sanders calls for airlines to refund passengers for flights delayed over an hour

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday to impose fines on airlines for significant delays, becoming the latest lawmaker to step up their pressure on the industry as consumers raise complaints after airlines received tens of billions in pandemic aid.

Sanders’s letter asks the Department of Transportation (DOT) to impose fines of $15,000 per passenger on domestic flights delayed more than two hours and international flights delayed more than three hours when the delays are not related to weather.

“Given all of the generous taxpayer support that has been provided to the airline industry, all of us have a responsibility to make sure that passengers and crew members are treated with respect, not contempt,” Sanders wrote.

He asked Buttigieg’s department to fine airlines $55,000 per passenger if they cancel flights they know cannot be fully staffed, pointing to an American Airlines pilot union spokesperson’s interview with CNBC last week claiming the airline was building its schedule to an “inhumane level.”

Sanders also demanded airlines be required to “promptly” refund passengers for flights delayed for more than an hour and provide passengers delayed more than four hours with meals and lodging.

Airlines received $54 billion in pandemic aid to preserve their payrolls, but the companies have defended their decision to reduce staff, particularly when federal aid temporarily lapsed in late 2020.

Many regional airlines now face significant pilot staffing shortages, causing schedule cutbacks and delays as demand resurges.

Airlines pin some of the blame on staffing shortages at air traffic control facilities manned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), although the agency claims there is no system-wide shortage and issues have occurred for a few hours at a few facilities.

The finger pointing has continued as passengers are left stranded, with travelers now bracing for a potentially brutal July 4th travel period as airlines struggle to meet high demand. Airlines have already delayed and canceled thousands of flights this week, according to FlightAware.

“Thousands of flight disruptions have left passengers and crew members stranded at crowded airports from one end of the country to the other forcing them to miss weddings, funerals and business meetings and ruining family vacations that have been planned for months in advance,” Sanders wrote on Tuesday.

A DOT spokesperson said the agency has already taken “myriad consumer protection actions,” referencing its record-level fine last year against Air Canada for its failure to issue cash refunds and 20 other investigations into airlines.

“We share the expectation that when Americans buy an airline ticket they will get where they need to go safely, affordably and reliably,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to work with airlines to meet that expectation, but also not hesitate in using enforcement actions to hold them accountable.”

The senator joins a growing chorus of Democrats calling for greater penalties against the airline industry.

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman similarly called for the Biden administration to impose fines on airlines for scheduling flights they know they cannot staff, although he suggested a fine half the size of Sanders’s proposal.

Fetterman’s proposed fine — $27,500 per passenger — mimics existing fine levels for airlines that allow domestic flights to sit on the tarmac for an extended period of time without allowing passengers to deplane.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote letters to 10 major domestic airlines on Wednesday requesting they provide data by mid-July about cancellations, delays and how many passengers received refunds or were rebooked.


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