Cantwell Presses Sec. Buttigieg on Strengthening Protections for Airline Travelers, Increasing Efficiency of Consumer Refunds

May 4, 2022

Cantwell, Markey and Blumenthal sent a letter to Sec. Buttigieg calling for transparent airline refund process

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, pressed Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg on the need for DOT to strengthen consumer protections for airline travelers, increase the transparency of the ticket refund process, and ensure airlines issue refunds to consumers for canceled or changed flights promptly. The Secretary appeared before the Committee earlier today on the Department’s FY 2023 budget.

“Safety must be a top priority in aviation, and it must be a top priority in aviation manufacturing,” Sen. Cantwell said. “We also want to make sure that our consumers who felt the impact of the pandemic also get their response from the airlines in a timely fashion.”


On Monday, Sen. Cantwell joined Sens. Markey and Blumenthal in a letter to Sec. Buttigieg urging DOT to strengthen rules requiring airlines to promptly issue refunds requested by passengers for significantly delayed or canceled flights, define the timeframe for an eligible refund, and make the refund request process more transparent for passengers.

Under current DOT policy, airlines are required to honor requested refunds for cancellations and significant schedule changes or delays. In 2020, the DOT received more than 29,687 complaints against U.S. airlines for not promptly issuing refunds.

At the hearing, Sen. Cantwell secured a commitment from Sec. Buttigieg that DOT would be proposing new rules “within days” to fix airline ticket refund issues that were exposed during the pandemic, including a set standard for when delays are long enough to trigger refunds.

“We need to make sure that airlines are held accountable for doing right by consumers and make sure the traveling public is treated fairly,” Sec. Buttigieg responded. “Part of how we responded to that is by enforcing an airline's obligation to provide refunds when there are cancellations or significant changes to flights. We fined one airline $4.5 million for extreme delays in providing refunds. We're investigating and actively working on a rulemaking that would address protections for consumers unable to travel due to restrictions or concerns related to serious communicable disease.”

Sen. Cantwell also addressed the important need for ensuring that aviation safety is a top priority and implementing the National Air Grant Fellowship program, particularly in light of leadership turnover after the FAA administrator retired earlier this year. Last month, the Senate passed a Cantwell-authored bill to rename the Air Grant program the “Samya Rose Stumo National Air Grant Fellowship Program,” in honor of 24-year-old Samya Rose Stumo, who lost her life in the March 10, 2019, crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

“I think everybody's concerned with the change in FAA administration, that we do have consistency and continuity here and continue to make progress that the FAA is the final word here on safety,” said Sen. Cantwell.

We recognize the importance of promptly and effectively implementing that [National Air Grant Fellowship program] law,” Sec. Buttigieg said. “We'll continue working to ensure that FAA meets its obligations and responsibilities.”

President Biden included investments in key DOT priorities when he submitted his budget proposal to Congress in March, including provisions about modernizing roads and bridges, improving highway safety, reducing supply chain bottlenecks and prioritizing aviation safety.

The Department of Transportation’s fiscal year 2023 budget proposal requests a total of $142 billion, $105 billion combined with the additional $37 billion guaranteed in advance appropriations provided under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). The FY 2023 budget would aim to implement the Biden-Harris Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, address freight supply chain congestion, improve transportation equity and address climate change and improve transportation safety.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law contains a number of Cantwell-authored programs in order to improve infrastructure and freight mobility. Including the Port Infrastructure Development Program (PIDP), a program critical to support Washington state ports to improve port facilities; the Mega projects for projects like the I-5 Bridge and the Highway 2 trestle; along with the Airport Infrastructure Grants to modernize and expand aging facilities, where airports such as Sea-Tac International and Spokane International have submitted applications.

View Senator Cantwell’s opening statement video here, question and answer video here, and statement transcripts here.