In March 2020, the U.S. government paid $54 billion of taxpayer money to keep the airline industry afloat and to ensure that when travel resumed there would be enough staff on hand to make sure Americans could engage in air travel. This direct subsidy to the industry amounts to $162 for every person in this country. Yet, the airlines forced thousands of their employees to take early retirement, and they are unable to provide air service now that air travel has resumed. Of course, this belt-tightening didn’t apply to airline CEOs; Delta CEO Ed Bastian made $12.4 million in 2021.
To make matters worse, to sell more tickets, airlines now routinely over-schedule flights that they are unable to staff. This leads to a host of last-minute cancellations that inconvenience travelers and workers, stranding many in airports far from their destination. Complaints about flying have skyrocketed, up 300% compared to the pre-pandemic era. The airline industry refused to give between $5-10 billions of refunds for cancellations over the last three years, despite a legal obligation to refund tickets for canceled flights.
The reason airlines can flout the law is because they know that the Department of Transportation will not enforce the rules. The current liability shield that protects airlines from being sued by consumers and state officials must be removed. This has allowed the airlines to skirt consumer protection and safety laws without consequence, all while American consumers pay the price with sky high profits, fewer flight options, and more delays and cancellations.