NBC News: Pete Buttigieg faces crisis and opportunity as airline cancellations mount

July 22, 2022 Media

Air travel stinks right now, creating just the kind of crisis that a politically adept and ambitious transportation secretary might turn to his advantage.

Americans want someone — anyone — to fix the problems: delays, cancellations, skyrocketing ticket prices.

The stakes could hardly be higher for the official tasked with finding solutions, and that’s Pete Buttigieg, 40, the former presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Flying fiascoes represent the first major test of whether he’s competent enough to lead an agency that stunts the small-city government he once ran. Compared to with South Bend, the Department of Transportation has roughly 50 times the workforce and a budget that is 370 times larger. And his performance, under scrutiny from former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and others, promises to shape his future within the Democratic Party.

“He’s the only sheriff that the airline passengers have,” said Bill McGee, a senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project, a nonprofit organization focused on consolidation and fairness in the corporate world. “If Pete Buttigieg doesn’t stand up and fight for air travelers, they’re out of luck. That’s the reality.”

Buttigieg could force the airlines to become more transparent about their flight records and crew staffing, McGee said. Instead, Buttigieg has taken a softer approach to the industry, chiding airlines in some instances and sitting down with them in others. Sanders wrote approvingly in his letter that Ray LaHood, Barack Obama’s first transportation chief, took aggressive action when unhappy passengers were stuck for hours on planes that hadn’t left the tarmac, enforcing a new rule that fined airlines up to $27,500 per passenger in such instances.