Holiday Travel Won't Be 'Perfect' but Better Than Summer, DOT Says — What to Know

"We are not out of the woods yet," Secretary Buttigieg said about hectic airline travel.

Travelers arrive at Orlando International Airport on the day before Christmas

Paul Hennessy/Getty Images

The holidays are quickly approaching and travelers are making plans, but Department of Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg said while holiday air travel will likely be an improvement from the chaos of the summer, it still won’t be perfect. 

Buttigieg’s remarks were part of an interview with The Washington Post, which Travel + Leisure participated in, where he outlined the work the DOT has done to improve transparency within the airline industry. It comes as 47% of people recently surveyed have indicated they plan to travel over the holiday break — with almost half of those planning to fly — and as holiday flight prices are expected to reach the highest they’ve been in five years.

“There is more work to do on the airlines when it comes to staffing [and] for us when it comes to getting our air traffic control where we want and need it to be. And I think for the system and the economy as a whole,” Buttigieg said. “So we're cautiously watching this holiday period. I think it'll be an improvement from the toughest moments we saw over the summer but not perfect as we go into next year and start to see some of these pandemic shockwaves [fully] work their way through the system.”

Buttigieg credited airlines for trimming their schedules to minimize disruptions, which many did in the summer and even into the fall, but he said still more needs to be done.

“We've seen a lot of improvements since then, but as we look back on the summer, it's clear that the system is still not as resilient as it needs to be for us to be confident that the passengers will be free from these kinds of increased cancellations and delays that affected so many of us over the course of this year,” he said. 

Under Buttigieg’s leadership, the DOT has launched a new website detailing airline compensation policies where passengers can see which airlines offer specific types of concessions such as meal vouchers, or automatic bookings when flights are canceled. The agency has also proposed a rule change that would require airlines to issue a refund for a delayed domestic flight.

For his part, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, who also participated in The Washington Post interview, said the “whole industry is running a lot better,” but it would likely never be without some turbulence. 

“We've built that buffer into the system and that's letting us overcome more of the challenges,” Kirby said about trimming schedules, but added, “I'm hopeful that the holidays will go well, but it is a system that’s tight. And in a system that is tight, if you get bad weather or get something that happens, it can be challenging. But it's a better setup than the whole industry had going into the summer.”

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