Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg proposing that the federal government take "immediate action" to reduce flight cancellations and delays that have been inconveniencing American travelers this summer.
According to Sanders, the U.S. government ought to fine airlines $55,000 per passenger for each flight the airline must cancel due to staffing shortages. Airlines also ought to be fined by the government $27,500 per passenger for each domestic flight delayed over two hours where passengers must sit on the tarmac, and $15,000 per passenger for each domestic flight delayed by more than two hours if tarmac loitering is not a factor. (Neither fine would be required if weather forces a delay.) For flights delayed by merely one hour, Sanders wants the federal government to force airlines to give passengers refunds.
Though none of this is likely to become law, Sanders' frequent cries for heavy-handed federal government intervention should be opposed whenever they crop up. This one is no exception.
Senate Budget Committee Chair @BernieSanders writes a letter asking Transportation @SecretaryPete to take action against the airline industry over flight cancellations, proposing passenger refunds and fines. pic.twitter.com/PoYsoOdMK8
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) June 29, 2022
Sanders, ever a man of the people, is reacting to the fact that summer air travel has been a hot mess. Prices have surged, reflecting pent-up demand that has rebounded from peak COVID era, while some airlines (like JetBlue) have cut routes and most have struggled with staffing shortages. In Atlanta, 400 Delta pilots spent this past holiday weekend picketing, protesting what they say are subpar working conditions. Per data collected Saturday afternoon, 20 percent of Southwest flights within the U.S. had been delayed for the start of Fourth of July weekend. American Airlines logged similar numbers, while Delta came in a little better, at 13 percent.
"Nine of the ten busiest days for air travel passenger volume since March 2020 have come in the last month," wrote Sean Cudahy last week for The Points Guy, "and the majority of those days fell in the last week or two." Transportation Security Administration pass-through numbers for this holiday weekend surpassed last year's, with more than 9 million total travelers hitting U.S. airports between Thursday and Sunday. The Los Angeles Times reports that "the rate of cancellations over the last two weeks is up 59% from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic."
The reasons for this dysfunction are complex, though, and Sanders' proposed fixes—which read more like punishments—would not solve domestic flyers' problems.
Mostly, the summer of flight delays and cancellations is a demand issue. Travel demand is extraordinarily high, which is a positive indicator that most Americans are going back to the normal patterns of life following pandemic interruptions, overly cautious guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 40-year-high inflation be damned. When you order people to stay at home for many months and tell them to skip a bunch of holidays and life events, at a certain point they decide to get back in the game of existing as social creatures. We're seeing that happen now.
But it's also an understaffing problem. Over the course of the pandemic, many airline employees were unable to do their jobs as they'd traditionally been done due to depressed travel; a chunk of them participated in the much-ballyhooed "Great Resignation," switching industries or retiring a bit early. Some airlines took advantage of service interruptions to retire some of their aircraft, which resulted in pilots needing to be retrained to fly different plane models. Some airlines also retrained pilots who had been furloughed or laid off during that period of record-low travel demand. Airlines like Delta, faced with financial trouble during the pandemic, adopted controversial "juniority benefits" (a.k.a. buyouts) for the most senior and highly-paid employees, as a cost-cutting measure. Airlines did what they could to hunker down, cut costs, and make the best of a dismal time for the industry.
Meanwhile, air traffic control—run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—also deserves some of the blame. FAA representatives deny that there's a staffing shortage while simultaneously admitting that air traffic controller training has been reduced due to COVID…which sure looks like a staffing shortage.
Sanders is right to bemoan the fact that airlines received $74 billion in pandemic-related aid from the federal government, which was ostensibly doled out to ensure airlines would be able to be resilient during low-travel times and get back to regularly planned service once conditions stabilized, though it didn't quite work out that way. It's almost like infusions of federal cash change airlines' incentives, and don't even fully prevent bad outcomes!
It's hard to see how the federal government intervention proposed by Sanders would create the endgame he desires, at a time when airlines are struggling to adapt to quickly changing conditions, and still face many unknowns—like whether business travel will ever fully rebound—that are tough to plan for.
Many sectors of the economy are experiencing strain right now. There's a palpable sense among American consumers that everything is getting simultaneously worse and more expensive. But this will not always be the case, since markets have a way of sorting these things out over time and readjusting to consumers' ever-changing needs. Eventually, supply chains will restabilize. Ports will no longer cyclically close down or be short-staffed due to COVID lockdowns. The real estate market will cool down a bit, with homes no longer going for 20 percent above asking. Inflation will someday be below today's staggering 8.6 percent. And, yes, airlines will once again compete for the mantle of best and most reliable, taking discerning flyers with them (and letting those who don't care as much about service interruptions gravitate toward more affordable airlines).
But it's not Sanders who will pull all this off—it's market forces, quietly at work, that should be trusted, not messed with.