Progressives take aim at Buttigieg over Southwest fiasco
By The Citizen on December 29, 2022
Progressives are taking aim at Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg over the Southwest airlines holiday travel fiasco that continues to cause mass delays and cancellations across the country, urging further scrutiny of the department’s practices.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a leading left-wing lawmaker on Capitol Hill, took to Twitter on Thursday to question the Transportation Department’s handling of the debacle that left travelers deserted and frenzied and administration officials scrambling.
“Nearly six months ago @BernieSanders & I called for Buttigieg to implement fines & penalties on airlines for cancelling flights. Why were these recommendations not followed?” the congressman tweeted. “This mess with Southwest could have been avoided. We need bold action.”
Khanna, who co-chaired Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, was referencing a recommendation that the Vermont senator put out in late June asking department officials to demand airlines compensate travelers for canceled or significantly delayed flights and cover their basic expenses like food and accommodations, which Khanna endorsed.
The California liberal, who is on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has been publicly critical of Buttigieg’s role in the process and has asked him to use more power to go after what he described in an interview with The Prospect as “unfair and deceptive practices” by the airline industry.
The Southwest episode has caused fury among passengers trying to navigate unusually long flight delays and cancellations with minimum communication from the airline. Scenes of people stranded spread through social media and news outlets highlighting stories of travelers missing out on personal and professional obligations amid the chaos.
The problem escalated to the Biden administration, with Buttigieg pledging to work towards a solution by talking to the Southwest CEO and other relevant parties.
“We’ve never seen a situation, at least not on my watch, with this volume of disruptions, so this is going to take an extraordinary level of effort by Southwest,” he said in a televised interview with ABC earlier this week. “And we will mount an extraordinary effort to make sure that they’re meeting their obligations.”
But progressives like Khanna and other figures aligned with the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party say the entire situation could have been avoided and that Buttigieg should take “bold action” to mitigate further harm.
Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, another Sanders presidential campaign co-chair and a recent House candidate, echoed Khanna’s sentiments, while David Sirota, a Sanders ally and alt-left media figure, urged more accountability by mounting pressure on Buttigieg directly to take stronger action.
“For months, state law enforcement officials of both parties have been sounding alarms about airlines mistreating their customers. But because of a four-decades-old federal preemption law, those officials cannot take action to protect consumers, even as airlines have benefited from billions of dollars of government support, and even as federal regulators have refused to use their power,” Sirota wrote in a note urging signatures linked to his newsletter.
“This is incompetence,” Turner wrote, tweeting out a link of Sirota’s reporting. “This is what placing unqualified people in positions of power to do the bidding of corporations will get you. There is a direct line from Secretary Buttigeig to the Southwest Airlines debacle and we shouldn’t pretend there isn’t.”
Sanders himself also called on the Transportation Department to hold Southwest accountable in a tweet on Wednesday.
“Southwest’s flight delays & cancellations are beyond unacceptable. This is a company that got a $7 billion taxpayer bailout & will be handing out $428 million in dividends to their wealthy shareholders,” he wrote. “@USDOT must hold Southwest’s CEO accountable for his greed and incompetence.”
Both Khanna and Buttigieg are talked about as possible 2024 candidates, though they have each downplayed that speculation. While they have pledged publicly to support President Biden if he seeks reelection for a second White House term, each has attracted attention for their divergent approaches to Democratic politics.
Buttigieg, 40, rose to prominence as the young former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who won the Iowa caucuses as a 2020 Democratic presidential contender but eventually dropped out and backed Biden. Biden ultimately tapped him to lead the Transportation Department, citing his executive experience overseeing an American city.
Khanna, 46, has also been in the public eye during Biden’s tenure, working in the House among fellow progressives to push the president to the left during his first term. He has advocated for a populist economic agenda to inspire innovation and promote financial growth for working class people.
A DOT spokesperson told The Hill that the department “has issued the largest fines in the history of the consumer protection office this year – helping to get hundreds of thousands of people hundreds of millions of dollars back.”
The spokesperson added that “in August Secretary Buttigieg pressed airlines to do more for passengers who had a flight canceled or delayed when it was under the airline’s control, such as covering the costs of rebooking, guaranteeing meals or hotels” — adding that “nine airlines now guarantee meals and hotels when an airline issue causes a cancellation or delay and all 10 guarantee free rebooking.”
The spokesperson said that the department “will hold Southwest Airlines accountable, including pursuing fines against the carrier if there is evidence that the carrier has failed to meet its legal obligations.”