STATEMENT: Airlines’ Christmas nightmare shows reform is needed now

Media Contacts

WASHINGTON – Everyone knew a week ago that Christmas weekend travel could be disrupted by the winter storm threatening many parts of the country. Few predicted that it would be the colossal disaster that we saw with more than 20,000 U.S. flights canceled from last Wednesday through this morning, and 2,500 already canceled for Wednesday, Dec. 28, according to FlightAware.

The storm brought major snowfall, high winds, ice and poor visibility to many cities, including ones with airline hubs. Hundreds of thousands of passengers have been affected. More than 7 million people were expected to fly between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Although the worst of the bad weather is over, flights will still be canceled or delayed for several more days. And we don’t know whether the New Year’s surge will bring a whole new round of chaos as travelers try to return home Sunday and Monday.

The Department of Transportation said it will probe cancellations and delays at Southwest Airlines, which canceled more than half of its weekend flights and said it plans to operate only one-third of its schedule “for the next several days” as it tries to get back on track.

In response, U.S. PIRG Consumer Watchdog Teresa Murray said: 

“Unreliable airline travel has been an ongoing nightmare for more than 2-½ years and now has caused anguish for so many families looking forward to gathering for the first time since 2019, before the pandemic started. The tales of passengers who spent the holiday weekend sleeping on the floor at an airport are heartbreaking.

“While the awful weather isn’t anyone’s fault, the way travelers were treated and accommodated – or not – sits squarely on the shoulders of most of the airlines.

“As federal officials examine how much of the mayhem was preventable, this catastrophe once again exposes the massive changes that are needed to better protect airline passengers. U.S. PIRG and other consumer and passenger rights groups in July sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to make it clear to airlines they need to reform — now.

“In August, the Department of Transportation proposed an industry overhaul including strengthening protections for consumers entitled to refunds. It also proposed new rights consumers would have if their domestic flights are delayed by three hours or more – the first time a “significant” delay has been defined. And the DOT launched a public database showing which airlines pay for hotels, food, etc., when flights are canceled or delayed.”

Among the changes PIRG has advocated for:

  • Instituting an industry-wide reciprocity agreement so passengers whose flights are canceled or delayed could have tickets transferred at no charge to another airline with seats available.

  • Holding airlines accountable for chronically delayed and canceled flights.

  • Demanding clearer notices to passengers about their compensation rights under the law.

  • Enabling stronger enforcement of passenger protections by empowering state attorneys general with the authority to enforce federal passenger protection laws. The DOT can’t properly deal with the volume of consumer complaints, which have soared since spring 2020.

  • Requiring airlines to offer transparent pricing that doesn’t change throughout the booking process.

“These changes can’t come soon enough,” Murray said. “We’ve seen so much chaos over the last 2-½ years, especially during holidays, spring breaks and other busy travel periods, as recently as this past July 4th weekend. We again are strongly pushing for reform so that consumers can trust the airlines won’t ruin another holiday.”

HELP FOR PASSENGERS: Passengers should know their rights if their flight is canceled for any reason. And if they choose to accept a credit or voucher, it’s important to understand how they work at each of the 10 largest domestic airlines. Here’s how to file a complaint with the DOT.