Ahead of what is expected to be one of the busiest travel seasons in history, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg warned of potential weather-related disruptions and increased pressure on airlines to manage high passenger volumes while encouraging travelers to remember their passenger rights.

Nearly 50,000 commercial flights are expected to fly in and out of U.S. airports Wednesday, eclipsing the number of flights on the day before Thanksgiving last year.

“We want everyone to be prepared for changes due to weather,” Buttigieg said during a press conference Monday at the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Travelers should check with their airline directly for the most up-to-date information about their flights, including any delays and cancellations.”

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Although 2023 has seen the lowest flight cancellation rate in the past five years (1.3%), the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor acknowledged the improvement follows on the heels of widespread disruptions that sprouted up during the bumpy return to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking to that period, Buttigieg said that “the level of disruptions … particularly on blue-skies days, was unacceptable.”

Despite the overall improvement for 2023, there have been bumps in the road.

Beyond weather, Buttigieg blamed the airlines and ongoing air traffic control staffing issues, responsible for 30,000-plus canceled flights the last week of June alone.

Now, going into a Thanksgiving travel period that’s expected to break records, Buttigieg said the DOT will be more proactive not only in enforcing existing rules but also in making sure passengers know exactly what their rights are in the event of flight disruptions.

“We are taking a lot of action to enforce the rules we do have,” Buttigieg said. “If your flight gets canceled or delayed for any significant reason … you are entitled to a full cash refund” if you do not choose to rebook.

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Buttigieg also urged travelers to file complaints with the agency if airlines fail to live up to their published customer service promises in the event of flight disruptions.

“If you have trouble getting an airline to honor that agreement … make sure to let us know,” he added.

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In addition to increasing pressure on U.S. airlines, the DOT under Buttigieg has pushed for transparent communication about passenger rights so that consumers can easily discern their rights in the face of delayed or canceled flights. For example, long-standing DOT policy entitles every airline passenger to a cash refund for a canceled flight or significantly delayed flight should they choose not to rebook. Since 2021, the Biden administration says the industry has issued $2.5 billion in refunds under these rules, which cover weather-related disruptions and airline errors, including maintenance-related delays.

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Notably, the DOT doesn’t specify what constitutes a significant delay or schedule change, determining refunds on a case-by-case basis. Most major U.S. carriers guarantee meals (or vouchers for said meals) for cancellations and delays of more than three hours that are not due to weather. Most airlines also provide complimentary hotel accommodations to cover cancellations that result in unexpected overnight stays if the disruption was the airline’s fault — not the weather’s.

“If an airline lets a passenger down, we are here to hold that airline accountable,” Buttigieg said, noting the ongoing DOT investigation into Southwest Airlines’ operational holiday meltdown nearly one year ago, which resulted in thousands of canceled and delayed flights around the country. “Mother Nature is, of course, the X factor in all of this.”

Buttigieg also has pushed U.S. airlines on scheduling, suggesting that several airlines planned schedules that were so ambitious that they could only operate under ideal conditions. Heading into the winter holidays, the DOT chief said he’s optimistic that the airlines have gotten the message on publishing realistic schedules, claiming a “clear improvement in the numbers” due to steps taken by airlines regarding scheduling and staffing.

“While we can’t control the weather, we will be using every tool at our disposal to keep cancellations and delays as low as possible in the first place, including working collaboratively with the airlines,” he said. “It’s been extraordinary to see the power of this tool and how differently airlines behave when they know customers know what happens when they don’t.”

For its part, the DOT says it’s working to help combat a long-standing air traffic controller shortfall. The Federal Aviation Administration, which falls under the DOT, is moving full-speed ahead to hire and train new staff. FAA hit its target of 1,500 hires this year, with a goal of 1,800 next year. However, it’s unclear if those numbers are enough to completely offset the natural attrition that occurs from retirements and those leaving the profession.

Regardless, Thanksgiving and Christmas travel will be the next major test for airlines and the DOT’s consumer-focused efforts. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration expects to screen approximately 30 million passengers between Nov. 17 and Nov. 28. An estimated 3.2 million passengers will fly on Sunday, Nov. 26, alone — expected to be the busiest day of the period.

“We will be working around the clock to make sure passengers get to where they’re going safely,” ensured the recently confirmed FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker.

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