The end of 2023 saw some significant improvements in airline travel, which was particularly noteworthy given how terrible the entire experience has grown in recent years. From the Southwest Airlines meltdown to increasingly lofty hurdles to get flight reimbursements to an expected onslaught of delays and cancellations, by the end of 2022 plenty of people were ready to give up on flying altogether.
That’s not to say that flying in 2023 was totally seamless, but it was improved. And driving that point home was the dramatic decrease in holiday flight cancellations. In 2022, 2.5% of holiday flights were canceled, according to the Department of Transportation. In 2023, that number was more than halved-only 1.2% of holiday flights were canceled. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the DOT are touting this as one of many successes for the agency.
Other wins include the DOT’s launch of its own passenger rights dashboard, which has aimed to shatter so many of the opaque policies airlines previously held for problems like reimbursements, rebookings, and payment for costs associated with delays and cancellations, like food and accommodations.
And then there were the recently announced Southwest Airlines penalties. During the 2022 holiday season, errors from Southwest caused what even Buttigieg refers to as a meltdown. Thousands of passengers were stranded, hundreds of flights were canceled, and even more flights delayed. But instead of the usual apathetic shoulder shrug from the corporation responsible, Southwest instead was charged $140 million in fines. Nearly all of the money is going to go back into passengers’ pockets, according to the DOT mandate.
In a conversation with Thrillist, Buttigieg broke down the DOT’s wins from 2023, the continued challenges, and what airline travelers can expect to see in 2024. I even managed to throw out my personal theory that plane seat cushions are getting thinner (no reaction there) and posited that while cancellations and delays are improving, there are plenty of complaints about the passenger experience becoming less pleasant once you’re on board. Buttigieg is aware of these concerns, and he outlined a few top-line strategies for the DOT he hopes will address them in 2024.
He even weighed on the age-old luggage debate of whether to check your bag or carry it on. Read the conversation below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Thrillist: How were these historically low cancellation rates achieved? Pete Buttigieg: A lot of it had to do with the pressure that we put on airlines, especially about a year and a half ago, to take better care of passengers when there’s a problem, and to make sure problems don’t happen in the first place. That included more realistic scheduling. It included stepping up hiring and making sure they were paying enough to hire the pilots and other flight crews that they needed.
Also, [there were] a number of steps that we undertook in collaboration with airlines on the operational side, things like de-conflicting the Florida airspace so that space launches and military activities took place during less busy times. Authorizing new, more efficient routes that involve a little bit less time in the air by following GPS technology that wasn’t available in the past. Everything and anything that we could do to make sure that there were better outcomes.
Why were the new consumer protection policies such big priorities for 2023? Well, we wanted to make sure that passengers are better protected. What we found was that in addition to developing new rules, which are very powerful but can take a while to work, we can also get results from the airlines using tools like transparency. We came up with the idea of the consumer passenger rights dashboard, and in the space of about two weeks before putting it up, we saw the airlines totally change their customer service policies. That’s what led to a major expansion in passengers rights on things like rebooking, ground transportation, meals, and hotels that an airline really should take care of if you get stuck.
We’re not stopping there. There’s more work to be done where that came from, but what we found is that combination of public pressure, even a little bit of naming and shaming where necessary, and the rules and regulatory framework can all add up into a better passenger experience.
What is going to be the DOT’s focus for 2024? One big push for us right now is family seating. I always thought this was important, but even more so since starting to fly with toddlers. I think it’s just a basic concept that if you’re flying with your kids, you shouldn’t have to pay extra to be seated with them. Believe it or not, most airlines do not guarantee this, although we’ve gotten guarantees out of some of them, which you can see on our website. And so we’re working toward a rule that would require it, because again, I think this is common sense.
We’re also working just to make sure there’s better, more transparent information about fees. That can be a big part of your ticket cost, and we want to make sure it’s very clear and transparent what the fees are, over and above your airfare, for things like baggage, as well as making sure that you get a refund on those fees if you don’t get what you paid for. Think Wi-Fi or a bag not getting there on time. Just like if your flight’s canceled, you ought to get your airfare refunded, if your bag doesn’t make it, you ought to get your baggage fee refunded. We’re working on steps like that.
We’re also launching a process on cash compensation, or some form of compensation, for a major delay or cancellation. This is over and above the airfare being returned to you when you get canceled. This already happens in other parts of the world. It’s a pretty popular policy in Europe. And so we’re launching the process to look at what that policy could be like here in the US.Why was enforcing fines and policies against Southwest Airlines a focus for the DOT, and how do you think it’s going to change future behavior from airlines in regards to situations like the 2022 holiday meltdown? So many people got caught up in that Southwest meltdown a year ago, and we saw families stranded and holidays ruined. It was very important to me and to this department that there’d be accountability for that. We made it clear that we were going to be looking over Southwest’s shoulders as they issued all of the reimbursements and refunds that were required of them but also that it was going to have to go beyond that.
There had to be accountability for that failure. And where we arrived was a record enforcement action. But alongside that, making sure that most of the value of that penalty went right back to passengers. So for the next three years, Southwest will be required to offer $75 vouchers over and above the other compensation that people can expect when they do have a cancellation or a delay in a way that we hope really changes the whole industry.
Do you find that enforcing these policies and putting more consumer protections in place has created an adversarial relationship with airlines? Or-and I don’t think this is the case-have airlines been eager to make these changes? I would say it’s mixed. Look, at an operational level we often collaborate with our airlines sitting side by side in operation centers to do problem solving around how to make sure that weather events or other issues are quickly resolved. We’re in a good dialogue with them about how to optimize air traffic control resources and other things that just tactically are going to make a difference.
Now, it’s also the case that when we propose a tough new customer protection rule, the airlines are generally not going to embrace it, and I get it. They’re concerned about their bottom line, but we’re concerned about the passenger experience. That’s our job, as a watchdog, to make sure that the passengers are taken care of.
Sometimes what you do on the enforcement side can have a result in the marketplace too, though. And here again, I’ll point to the enforcement action against Southwest. They now have to do this additional $75 to compensate passengers who experienced a controllable delay or cancellation. That means that they just became the industry leader in providing that kind of benefit. I’ll be very interested to see if other airlines decide to follow suit, not because they’re being punished, but because they want to compete.
Overall in 2024, what should travelers expect to see from the DOT? Well, passengers will see the benefit of these additional passenger protections, that’s the biggest thing. I always urge passengers to look at flightrights.gov because sometimes you don’t get these benefits unless you ask for them. And so it’s important to be armed with good information and to know that our department has your back. We’re going to keep pushing on the operational side, make sure that airlines take steps to keep cancellations low.
Another concern that I have is around delays, where we need to make sure that we address every possible cause of delays. The number-one cause of delays is weather. The reality is that, especially in the context of our changing climate, extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent. We’ve got to be prepared for that. We’re also looking at air traffic control, and hiring more air traffic controllers so that short staffing is less likely to lead to a delay.
Finally, what’s your personal favorite travel hack? I really try to avoid checking bags. I think my equation is a little different now that there are kids involved and car seats and that kind of thing, but anytime you can avoid it, I find there’s a pretty big benefit there. The biggest thing I try to do is keep it simple.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube.
Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Journalism from NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She’s worked in digital media for eight years, and before working at Thrillist, she wrote for Mic, The Cut, The Fader, Vice, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.
Mexican restaurant chain Mad Mex has dropped a new protein, and it’s one of the most popular street foods in Mexico.
Enter, Chicken Al Pastor. It’s traditionally made with pork and grilled on a spinning rotisserie with a pineapple sitting a top, but Mad Mex has put its own spin on it, serving chicken bathed in an Al Pastor marinade with a touch of juicy pineapple.
You can order the protein-packed filling in your favourite burrito, bowl, quesadilla, nachos, or in a taco.
As always, these things are here for a good time, not a long time. Pop into your local Mad Mex restaurant, order delivery or through the Mad Mex app today.