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Holding airlines accountable for flight delays and cancellations

FILE – People wait in a TSA line at the John F. Kennedy International Airport on June 28, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, File)

This past summer, countless Americans took to the skies, some travelling for the first time in years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But instead of an easy flight, tens of thousands of would-be passengers had their flights delayed or cancelled all together, leaving some of them stranded far from home. 

In fact, flight cancellations are at the highest they have been in more than a decade, and consumer complaints spiked by 270 percent in June 2022 compared to 2019. This is an absolute nightmare for travelers who were already paying more than they should because of fewer flights and a spike in demand.  

It should never have been allowed to get this bad.  

The Long Shadow of Airline Deregulation and Consolidation  
 
In 1978, Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act, which created special rules for the airline industry and removed states’ enforcement authority over it. These deregulatory reforms ultimately failed to create open airline markets while also crippling oversight and enforcement within the industry.  

Decades later, this exemption shields airlines from oversight and accountability. Not only are states banned from preventing airline abuses, but so is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which enforces our antitrust and consumer protection laws.  

During this period, the airline industry has also consolidated from more than 20 major airlines into just six large nationwide carriers. These mergers have harmed competition, resulting in less choice and higher prices for consumers. Residents of mid-sized and smaller cities have suffered disproportionately, as airlines have reduced flights in places like Providence, Memphis, and Cleveland, while also raising prices and hiring fewer workers, further hurting the economy of these regions. 

This consolidation continues with JetBlue announcing just this past July that it struck a deal to acquire Spirit Airlines for $3.8 billion

Airline Choices During the Pandemic Are Harming Consumers 
 
During the pandemic, the airline industry took $54 billion in relief funds from American taxpayers. Although they were prohibited from laying off workers, airlines nevertheless skirted these rules through buyouts and furloughs of tens of thousands of employees.  

Now, as a direct result of these actions, the industry is struggling to find sufficient staff to meet demand, leading to thousands of delayed and cancelled flights and higher prices for passengers.  
 
Airlines are not going to change on their own. As the Allied Pilots Association has noted, the airlines have learned that “they can get away with it, because there are no consequences other than the damage to the brand and demoralizing . . . employees.” 

The Path Forward 

Congress can take action. Last month, we introduced the Ensuring Friendly Skies for Passengers Act to empower the FTC and states to hold the airlines accountable when passengers are stranded. It does so by making it unlawful for airlines to sell tickets or delay or cancel flights when the airlines know in advance that they do not have the staff to deliver the promised service. It also puts antitrust enforcers back on the beat by empowering the FTC and state attorneys general to enforce antitrust and consumer protection laws in these markets to end predatory behavior by the airlines.  

More fundamentally, this legislation changes incentives for airlines. Instead of feeding Wall Street greed as it has done for a generation through mergers and share buybacks, the airline industry will have to compete and invest in workers and improvements to passenger experience. Instead of hollowing out capacity, airlines will have to end operational meltdowns, restore stability, and ensure adequate staffing to relieve overworked employees.  

This legislation is also an important complement to ongoing efforts by the Biden administration, which is “cracking down on the airlines to get passengers fairer treatment,” including through the adoption of new transparency rules for the airline industry.   

Congress must put consumers and workers first. It is high time to end the special treatment that airlines have received for decades. We must hold them accountable for the harm they are causing passengers: the missed life events; time separated from family, friends, and work; and the stress of navigating a travel system that is leaving consumers high and dry. 

Jan Schakowsky represents the 9th District of Illinois and is chair of the Energy and Commerce Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee and David Cicilline represents the 1st District of Rhode Island and is chair of the Judiciary Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee. 

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