After a summer of flight delays and cancellations, federal officials issue an ultimatum to the airlines

After a punishing summer for air travelers who have seen delayed and canceled flights, the federal government is taking additional steps to help beleaguered passengers.

The Department of Transportation is telling the airlines that they need to come up with their own improvements for customer service or the agency will proceed with a plan to order a rule change. 

The department is also creating a website, eyed for a launch two weeks from now, that it hopes will easily show each airline’s policies regarding cancellations and delays.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called the travel disruptions unacceptable.

“The message to the airlines is that you’ve got to make it easier for passengers to understand their rights. And you’ve got to support passengers when they experience delays or cancellations,” he said in an interview that aired Friday on NBC’s “TODAY.”

In the first six months of the year, 24% of U.S. flights have been delayed, and 3.2% have been canceled, according to Transportation Department data.

The department says that airlines bear most of the blame, for overscheduling flights and then offering confusing rules on cash refunds and vouchers.

Airlines say there is a pilot shortage. American Airlines said in July that it could take three years to get back to full nationwide capacity, citing a lack of pilots.

The busy summer travel season has seen headache-inducing holiday weekends, and delays and cancellations have added to the misery for people already paying high prices for tickets. Labor Day weekend, which sees a high number of travelers, is only two weeks away.

The Transportation Department earlier this month announced a proposed new rule to strengthen protections for travelers seeking refunds from airlines. It said that since 2020, it has received “a flood of air travel service complaints.”

That new rule would make domestic flights delayed by three hours eligible for refunds (six hours for international), as well as flights where the destination airport is changed, according to the department.

The airline industry said in a statement that its members comply with federal laws and rules regarding cash refunds, and that “carriers strive to provide the highest level of customer service and are committed to working with travelers to address their individual circumstances.”

Travel experts suggest always having a backup plan if something goes wrong, and that if passengers are able to fly earlier in the day, they should.

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