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Friday, June 14, 2024

Secretary Buttigieg Accepts Consumer Federation of America’s Philip Hart Public Service Award for Historic Efforts to Protect Airline Passengers

Under Secretary Buttigieg, USDOT has advanced the largest expansion of airline passenger rights, returned more money owed to consumers, and issued the biggest fines in the Department’s history

WASHINGTON – Yesterday evening, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg accepted the Consumer Federation of America (CFA)’s Philip Hart Public Service Award for his dedication to fighting for consumers at CFA’s 52nd Annual Awards Celebration. Past recipients of the award include President Joe Biden, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, U.S. House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.

In recognizing Secretary Buttigieg, CFA cited USDOT’s initiatives to take on the challenges of aviation consumer protection head on, including:

  • New rules to address surprise junk fees, delayed refunds, and the unfair treatment of passengers with disabilities
  • Forging a relationship with a bipartisan group of attorneys general to further protect consumers
  • Taking historic enforcement action against Southwest Airlines for the 2022 holiday meltdown
  • Pushing for a ban on family seating junk fees
  • Setting a new precedent through the review of the JetBlue-Spirit merger and support for the Department of Justice’s lawsuit to block it

“We were honored to be able to recognize Secretary Buttigieg’s dedication to fighting for consumers and powerful advocacy measures to improve air travel and hold airlines accountable,” said Susan Weinstock, CEO and president of Consumer Federation of America. “CFA has been a longtime advocate for air travel reform, and we are excited to continue to work with the Department of Transportation to continue its momentum to enhance consumer protections and competition in the air travel industry.”

Full transcript of Secretary’s remarks accepting the award:

Good evening! Secretary Pete Buttigieg here. 

I regret that I could not be with you in-person, and I want to thank you for the chance to address you by video, because I want to convey to you how deeply I appreciate the Consumer Federation of America for this recognition – and for your work. CFA has been at the forefront of advocating for consumers for more than 50 years across a broad array of critical issues from promoting financial well-being to protecting safety and health. And I want to recognize my own colleague, Acting Under Secretary Christopher Coes, and thank him for being there to accept it on behalf of not only myself but the entire Department’s dedicated staff who make our consumer work possible. 

 It is a particularly meaningful honor to receive an award named for Senator Hart: a decorated War World II veteran, a deeply respected public servant, a leading voice in Congress on civil rights, and of course, a legendary champion of consumer rights, antitrust legislation, and equitable economic opportunity.  

 He laid the groundwork for so much of what we’ve accomplished on our watch, here at the Department of Transportation under the Biden-Harris Administration.  

 And we are proud of that work. Put simply, my intention has been for this administration to deliver the biggest expansion in airline passenger rights and protections since the airlines were deregulated in the 1970s. I believe we have hit that mark, and we are continuing to push forward.

 We got to work on this right away, though it bears mentioning how dramatically things have changed since our administration arrived and immediately confronted the most widespread and intense disruptions to air transportation since 9/11. 

The pandemic brought the airline sector to a standstill, requiring a taxpayer rescue to keep it in business at all – only for the swift economic recovery that followed to bring travel demand back faster than the airlines were prepared for. The result was whiplash, and millions of passengers facing disruptions and trying to get the refunds they were owed. 

Our enforcement activity responded to that moment, but we know that we needed to take action not just to enforce the rules but to strengthen them, and to make sure that our Department leaned into the full spectrum of its authority – and its obligation – to address unfair and deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition. 

Our reforms are long-needed. They are common-sense. They are fair. Some of them have been met with furious resistance from special interests, but we stand by them, because we recognize the importance of using the tools of government to make consumers better off. 

We changed the department’s decades-long posture and set a new precedent by announcing our investigation of the JetBlue-Spirit merger and support of the DOJ lawsuit to block it, which later prevailed in a court of law. 

 Earlier this spring, we issued two final rules—one of which makes sure airline passengers aren’t hit with hidden charges by requiring upfront disclosure of baggage, change, and cancellation fees. This one rule is expected to save passengers more than half a billion dollars each year. 

The other rule requires airlines to refund your money automatically if your flight is canceled or if it’s significantly changed to the point that you no longer take it. It changes the default so that you get your money back unless you proactively request otherwise, instead of the other way around, where you had to haggle or even fight to get money the airline owed you. 

Working with Congress, President Biden signed a law that protects our automatic refunds rule from industry efforts to undermine it and supports our other consumer protection work, like getting rid of fees parents have had to pay to sit next to their young children on a flight.   

 Of course, before it comes to any refund or enforcement action, the best outcome is not to have a disruption in the first place. After unacceptable levels of cancellations in 2021 and 2022, we pushed airlines when necessary and worked with them when appropriate to help bring cancellations to a 10-year low in 2023. 

 When airlines do fail passengers, we’ve set a new and much tougher standard on enforcement. We issued record fines and enforcement actions on airlines, including the $140 million penalty for Southwest Airlines for the meltdown it experienced over Christmas 2022. That single action represents more than the entire cumulative total of what DOT levied against all airlines between 1996 and 2020. All in, we’ve helped get nearly $4 billion back into passengers’ pockets through refunds and reimbursements. And we’ve established an unprecedented partnership with 18 state attorneys general, and counting, to fast-track consumer complaints and get passengers results. 

 We’re also making sure that passengers know the full extent of their rights—and there is accountability in the event something does go wrong. We launched flightrights.gov, so passengers have a comprehensive resource to compare what benefits and protections each airline provides for controllable cancellations and delays, family seating, and members of our military. We found that in many cases, the mere fact of us putting that information out there led to airlines changing their customer service policies – in ways that we can hold them accountable for upholding. 

Meanwhile we are expanding rights for the millions of passengers with disabilities, who deserve to travel safely and with dignity, with goals like ensuring their wheelchair arrives without damage and that lavatories can accommodate them.  

 And we launched the first-ever privacy review of the nation’s ten largest airlines regarding their collection, handling, maintenance, and use of passengers’ personal information. We are looking at whether airlines are unfairly or deceptively monetizing or sharing that data with third parties, and we will take action if we find misconduct.  

 We’ve partnered with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to gather information about frequent flier and airline credit card rewards programs to make sure the companies behind them are doing right by consumers. And I appreciated Consumer Federation of America’s own Erin Witte joining our panel on this issue last month to help inform our approach.  

 Our airline work is part of a larger vision on protecting consumers and workers. Beyond our airline passenger work, we’ve backed the FTC’s efforts to ban junk fees, which could help protect truck drivers from predatory towing fees. And we launched an enforcement sweep called “Operation: Protect Your Move” to make sure that families aren’t targeted by scammers that try to charge exorbitant fees and hold their possessions hostage when they’re moving into a new home. 

 All of this work is about making life simpler, safer, fairer, and more affordable for consumers of all kinds, and it’s part of President Biden’s focus on lowering costs and eliminating junk charges in our economy. 

 As I said earlier, my intention as Transportation Secretary has been to make sure that this administration ushers in the biggest expansion in transportation consumer protection and passenger rights since the deregulation era began. And this goal and the work supporting it is propelled by the advocacy of so many people watching this right now. 

 So I want to thank everyone at the CFA for this award and their recognition of the good, important work happening at USDOT. And I hope you enjoy the evening.
 

Official news published at https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/secretary-buttigieg-accepts-consumer-federation-americas-philip-hart-public-service

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