Pete Buttigieg’s view from the middle seat

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ABOARD UNITED FLIGHT 1366 — In Row 40 near the back of the airplane, the secretary of transportation is locked in mock negotiations over a middle-seat armrest.

Pete Buttigieg firmly believes the person in the middle should get both. But in this four-seat center row, there are two middle seats.

“This is unusual,” he says to the reporter sitting next to him.

“You can share,” he says, demonstrating how one person’s elbow can rest near the back and the other’s near the front, or vice versa.

Like all road warriors, Buttigieg has strong feelings about air travel: who gets the elbow space, his preferred window shade position (up), whether it’s acceptable to recline (yes) and the best in-flight snacks (stroopwafel).

But his strongest feeling — backed by a flurry of new policies, rule proposals and pressure campaigns — is that airlines have gotten a pass from regulators and need to do better by passengers.

“On one hand, flying is a miracle, and it’s an extraordinary thing that we’re able to do,” he said, in a car that whisked him from Denver International Airport. “But it’s also true that it’s become more and more frustrating in many ways. And the airlines aren’t going to fix that on their own; they need to be pushed.”

As the nation’s top transportation official, Buttigieg has responsibilities beyond air travel: He has responded to backlogs at California ports, a train derailment in Ohio and the Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore. But between the pandemic, airline meltdowns, air-traffic-controller shortages and Boeing safety concerns, he’s overseen an unusually tumultuous stretch of aviation history. And he knows the time for his agenda is running out.

In interviews, announcements and public speeches over the past few months, Buttigieg has challenged airlines with an urgency driven by the calendar. Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, he said he plans to “sprint” to the finish line.

The prize he eyes? “I really want this to be known as the period when we did the biggest expansion in passenger rights since deregulation, and I think we can hit that mark,” he said.

As for what comes next, the 2020 presidential candidate isn’t saying. Even if President Biden wins in November, it would be unusual for Buttigieg to keep his job for much longer; most transportation secretaries don’t stay far beyond one term.

“This job takes 110 percent of what I’ve got, and so I know that the best thing I can do with the time we have here is to make the most of it,” he said.

‘You eat what you cook’

On a recent Tuesday, Buttigieg arrived at his gate in Washington Dulles International Airport shortly after 7 a.m. for an 8:15 a.m. flight to Denver. Dressed in slacks, a button-up shirt and jacket, he had a briefcase bag slung over a shoulder, a small carry-on in one hand and cup of black Dunkin’ coffee in the other. He was eager to sit down and eat but had time only for meals on the go: a bagel standing at Dulles Gate D3, takeout tacos in Denver.

Buttigieg said he typically travels once a week, heading out for a whirlwind day or one night away. With young twins at home, it’s best for him to be in his own bed as often as possible. He’s taken hundreds of flights as transportation secretary, visiting 47 states so far.

By virtue of his role and Secret Service escort, Buttigieg gets to avoid some of the pettier annoyances of travel. He doesn’t have to go through regular Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. He boards the plane first, avoiding the scrum at the gate. Overhead bins will fill up, but he gets the first shot.

But Buttigieg can’t escape some hassles: The WiFi is broken. He requests the apple-mango bar, but only the chocolate quinoa snack is available. (Nobody complains, but a flight attendant later brings the fruit option anyway.)

Government employees book economy, but because he flies so often, Buttigieg is frequently upgraded by the airlines. His team tries to decline, but if that’s not possible, he said he gives the better seat to the most junior or the tallest person on his team. On this flight, his group has ended up with extra legroom in an “economy plus” row — behind the lavatory.

“I’m not going to learn that much about passenger protection if I’m sitting up in first class,” he said.

He said he thinks about airlines as a policymaker and a passenger but also as a parent. He refers to a truism he embraced as mayor of South Bend, Ind. “You eat what you cook,” he said.

Or in this case, you fly the airlines you regulate.

After landing early from Dulles, Buttigieg walked fast through the Denver airport with his security detail and aides, eschewing moving walkways. He was on a tight schedule as usual, though his flights don’t always cooperate so well.

A woman walking by gave him a wide smile: “Mayor Pete! Ha!”

He said people approach him frequently, sometimes for a photo, sometimes to share a note, sometimes to vent. He has gotten well-wishes from flight attendants scrawled on napkins, a note of encouragement written on a barf bag and lobbying from pilots on potential changes to the retirement age. People sometimes guess his email and copy him on their notes to airlines, or include him in social media complaints.

Buttigieg said it’s a good thing to hear from people when they have a problem — though the Transportation Department’s consumer complaint form is the best way.

“If I get talking to the person next to me on the plane, sometimes I get a very detailed picture of their experience,” he said.

He recalled once meeting a couple who were stuck at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

“Of course they wanted to know what I was going to do about it,” he said.

When Buttigieg began his tenure in early 2021, airlines were in recovery mode because the pandemic had largely halted travel. As travel ramped back up, short-staffed carriers struggled to manage the demand — despite receiving billions of dollars in a federal bailout to protect airline jobs. Delays and cancellations spiked. Between airline problems and other disasters under his watch, Buttigieg’s job performance was getting slammed.

“Has Pete Buttigieg’s dream job turned into a nightmare?” New York Magazine asked in early 2023.

At one point in the chaotic summer of 2022, Buttigieg said, he called a Zoom meeting with the CEOs of major airlines, pushing them to do better as a stand-in for the flying public. “And then [I] woke up the next morning, and my flight was canceled,” he said. “I think that was kind of the most dramatic moment of frustration.”

Consumer groups were frustrated, too.

“I felt that he was not using his authority — that he was asking the airlines to step up and do the right thing,” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. “My viewpoint is that will never work.”

Flexing the ‘power of transparency’

The travel woes of 2022 culminated with the Southwest Airlines meltdown over the Christmas holiday that wreaked havoc on travel for 2 million people. A year later, the department fined the airline a record $140 million.

It can take even longer to formally get a new rule on the books. The department started the process in 2022 for two rules that only just became final. One requires airlines to automatically refund passengers if their flights are canceled or significantly delayed, and they choose not to travel. The other mandates more transparency around fees.

In September 2022, the department took a different approach, beginning a period when Buttigieg “kind of started kicking some butt,” said Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

In 2022, just in time for Labor Day, the Transportation Department launched a public-facing dashboard at FlightRights.gov to show what each airline pledged to do for customers in case of delays or cancellations. To get a green check mark on the dashboard, airlines had to make assurances about hotel accommodations, food vouchers, rebooking and other benefits in their own customer service plans. Some actually changed their plans to promise better care for passengers, Buttigieg said.

“What the dashboard taught us is that it’s not just the hard power we have to issue rules and enforce rules, it’s also the power of transparency,” he said.

Murray said she has frustrations with the department on other fronts, but the pressure and public awareness forced airlines’ hands: “I think that’s brilliant, and it’s worked.”

That followed the counsel of former transportation secretary Ray LaHood, who introduced a slate of consumer protections under President Barack Obama.

“My advice was keep pushing” the airlines, LaHood said. He gives Buttigieg high marks for his performance.

“That’s your job,” LaHood said. “You have to represent the flying public. If you don’t, nobody else will.”

The Transportation Department has since rolled out a comparison of airline policies about fee-free family seating. A new dashboard highlighting travel benefits for members of the military is forthcoming.

Among other measures, since last year the department has proposed or finalized rules over airline lavatory accessibility and protections for wheelchair users; launched a review of the way U.S. airlines handle customers’ information; held a public hearing on airline loyalty programs and credit cards; and formed an agreement with multiple state attorneys general to allow states to investigate consumer complaints and refer them to the Transportation Department for enforcement.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trajectory like I’ve seen in the last year or so at the DOT,” said McGee, who appeared with Buttigieg last month at the announcement of transparency and refund rules. Back in 2022, McGee had dismissed the dashboard as not going far enough — calling it “lipstick on a pig”— but he has since changed his tune. “I’ve never seen any sort of department or public official turn things around so quickly and so decisively.”

Phil Weiser (D), Colorado’s attorney general, said he was “the biggest nudge” on the consumer complaints issue, mostly during the previous administration. He said he gave the department credit for working with his office on the partnership; he and Buttigieg made the announcement in Denver last month.

“The corporate culture at the Department of Transportation is not one that historically put consumers first,” he said. “They’re putting consumers first.”

For travelers who use wheelchairs, a proposed rule to hold airlines more accountable for damaging or destroying assistive devices has been welcome.

“We have been fighting for accessible, affordable transportation for a long time, administration after administration,” said Theo Braddy, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living — and a wheelchair user who hasn’t flown in 30 years. “This one hit differently, no doubt.”

Not everyone has been as enamored of Buttigieg’s moves. Many consumer watchdog groups say the department hasn’t been hard enough on airlines.

Within the airline industry, officials have questioned the significance of Transportation Department measures such as the customer service dashboard and the new refund rules, saying their companies already offered the required benefits in many cases. Industry officials also share a perception that the administration does not believe airlines are competitive enough, despite the fact that they battle for customers by offering low fares while facing high costs for labor and fuel.

In a rebuttal to Buttigieg’s statements about the dashboard during a 2023 CNBC interview, the trade group Airlines for America said its members “frequently exceed” Transportation Department regulations for customer service. During a speech in January, the group’s CEO, Nicholas Calio, called the dashboard “a good thing” but also issued his own challenge: “In that same spirit of transparency, there should be public dashboard highlighting DOT and [Federal Aviation Administration] initiatives. What are they? How much do these programs cost? What’s the status of these taxpayer funded projects? When will they be completed? Why?”

Robert W. Mann, a consultant and former airline executive, said there’s “a natural tension” between airlines and the Transportation Department. Regulations can also have unintended consequences, he said, such as airlines canceling flights to avoid the penalties laid out in a 2010 tarmac delay rule.

Buttigieg said that airlines, “unsurprisingly,” have not been enthusiastic about efforts to hold them to a higher standard. He thinks it will be good for them in the long run.

“I think if your customers are mad at you, that’s not good for your business long-term,” Buttigieg said. “I want airlines to succeed, but I want them to succeed by providing good service.”

For all his criticism of airlines, Buttigieg remains an unabashed fan of flying. He likes to keep the window shade up so he can watch the country go by. He can wax poetic about the restaurants and shops at O’Hare. The welcome mat to his office is a piece of the iconic old carpet from Portland, Ore., International Airport.

Buttigieg was born into his flying fandom: His father, who emigrated from Malta, kept a log written in pencil of all his flights. Joseph Buttigieg brought his young son to the airport in South Bend to see Air Force One when President Ronald Reagan visited. He asked to keep flight-specific maps that were displayed on planes; a young Pete wallpapered his room with them. The family used frequent-flier miles to visit relatives in Malta.

“I would, as a kid, be obsessed with the flight that was coming up,” Pete Buttigieg said. He would stare at the tickets for months in anticipation: “The longer the flight the better, as far as I was concerned.”

In his youth, he imagined a career as an airline pilot. As an adult, he proposed to his husband at O’Hare.

“The fact that now I’m deeply involved in airplanes as a regulator, it’s kind of a full-circle moment,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg has long had his travel routine down: Pack no more than necessary. Never check a bag. Don’t arrive at the airport too early. But then he and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, adopted newborn twins in 2021. The family splits their time between D.C. and Traverse City, Mich., where Chasten grew up.

Traveling with a family, the old habits don’t fly. Never check a bag? Ha! Drink hot coffee and read a book? LOL. Thwart a toddler fascination with buttons that will summon the flight attendant? Definitely try!

“You go from being like George Clooney in that frequent-flier movie [“Up in the Air”], where you’ve got it optimized down to the second, to having a 2-year-old decide how long you’re going to take to get to the terminal and how you’re going to spend your flight,” Buttigieg says.

As a well-known proxy for the Biden administration, Buttigieg has been subject to right-wing scrutiny and even mockery when he took parental leave after his kids’ birth. He’s been a target of Republican lawmakers, who asked for an investigation into the times he used government jets for official travel. The Transportation Department’s inspector general found that both he and his predecessor, Elaine Chao, followed the proper rules.

The final months of the term will be busy. Buttigieg said there is still a backlog of consumer complaints to investigate, some of which will be resolved through enforcement actions. Finalizing the rule for wheelchair users is another must-do. The department is working to start a process for a compensation rule in case of airline-caused delays or cancellations.

One of Buttigieg’s top priorities on the passenger front is moving forward with a rule that will force airlines to ensure a young child can sit next to an accompanying adult without a fee. The department has already published a dashboard showing which airlines include the promise in their customer service plans, though carriers say they will try to work with families even if they do not make a guarantee.

Airlines have argued that family seating issues are just a small portion of their complaints, he said. But Buttigieg says fighting to sit with a kid is worse than haggling over a refund. “I say that thinking about how ballistic I would be if I had to beg, borrow and steal a seat so I could sit next to my 2-year-old.”

Buttigieg said he believed that families should not be charged to sit together before he flew with kids, “but now I understand it in a whole new way.”

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