Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg delivered a Thanksgiving message Monday to “extremist Republicans in Congress” regarding air travel ahead of what is expected to be “some of the busiest travel days in U.S. history.”
“Bottom line is that, you know, in just two or three years, we’ve gone from people wondering whether the U.S. aviation sector as we knew it would survive to a mountain right now of record demand and record work going on to meet that demand. I need to stress that the progress I’ve discussed and the progress underway with regard to our aviation workforce, technology and infrastructure is not guaranteed,” Buttigueg told reporters. “Every time extremist Republicans in Congress bring us to the brink of a government shutdown, it threatens to stop the momentum that we built around training and around protecting customer rights.”
“Every time they threaten to slash funding for DOT and short the FAA – and there’s a Republican proposal to do that on the cusp of reaching the House floor right now – it threatens to reverse all of this progress,” he said. “So we’re doing everything we can with everything that we have. But if some voices in Congress got their way, we would have to freeze hiring new staff. We would be set back in modernizing computer systems, including the badly outdated system that forced the FAA to ground planes when there was an outage back in January. It would disrupt the progress that we’ve made. I’m certain that it would lead to more disruptions in air travel.”
In a 52-page report issued earlier this month, aviation experts who examined the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety record warned that the agency needs better staffing, equipment and technology to address a series of close calls between planes. Experts also recommended the FAA be insulated from annual funding hurdles in Washington, as Congress races to avoid a government shutdown.
Buttigieg said 1,500 new air traffic controllers were hired in the last fiscal year, while FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker highlighted several key initiatives to increase the FAA’s rate of hiring and training of air traffic controllers.
Buttigieg continued, “It is striking when you see some of these same elected officials who seem ready to make it a partisan issue, even if their flight is delayed in bad weather, turn around and be prepared to go to the floor of the House and cut funding for air traffic control or worse, threaten to shut down the government and force air traffic controllers to work without pay. It is my hope and expectation that reason will prevail on Capitol Hill.”
At the onset of the press conference, Buttitieg said, “This holiday season is estimated to bring some of the busiest travel days in U.S. history, building on a summer that was already record-breaking.”
“We wanted to come together today ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday to share a bit of an update on what we are doing to make air travel easier and what we are doing to protect the rights of travelers,” Buttigieg said. “It bears pointing out that less than three years ago when President Biden took office during the toughest days of the pandemic, the biggest concern around our nation’s airlines was whether they were going to survive at all. And if they did, how many years or even decades it would take for them to recover. Of course, aviation is just one of the sectors in the economy that rebounded much more quickly than was thought possible during the Biden economic recovery.”
“Winter weather may challenge airlines in the next few weeks, but so far, 2023 has seen the lowest cancellation rate in the last five years at just 1.3%. It’s much lower than last year,” the transportation secretary added. “It’s lower even than before the pandemic, which translates to millions more people getting to home or getting to work or getting to their loved ones as expected.”
Whitaker said nearly 50,000 flights are expected Wednesday, eclipsing last year.
“We will be working around the clock to make sure passengers get to their destination safely,” he said.