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The Department of Transportation is cracking down on airlines

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It has been a chaotic start to the summer for many travelers as airlines struggle to meet surging demand. Tens of thousands of flights have been delayed or canceled. And now the Department of Transportation is stepping up pressure on the airlines on three fronts - the denial of refunds for cancelled flights, charging extra fees for families to sit together and the treatment of passengers with disabilities. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Just how bad is it to fly this summer?

BILL MCGEE: I'm not speaking hyperbolically, but I can tell you, David, that this is the worst I've ever seen in the 37 years I've been around this industry.

SCHAPER: Bill McGee used to work in airline operations and is now an aviation consumer advocate with the American Economic Liberties Project.

MCGEE: The fact is the airlines - their performance this summer is just absolutely awful. And I think, you know, there's going to have to be a reckoning.

SCHAPER: Consumer complaints against airlines so far this year are up more than 300% over pre-pandemic levels. So Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on Fox News Sunday that airlines need to fix their operations and improve customer service.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Here's what we're doing about it. We'll collaborate with airlines when they're ready to take steps that are positive and proactive, whether that's improvements in pay that are helping with hiring or flexibility in customer service. We're also going to enforce passenger and consumer rights.

SCHAPER: Along those lines, Buttigieg says the department has now concluded 10 investigations into airlines denying refunds to customers for cancelled flights and that fines will likely be announced soon. And he says the DOT has launched 10 more such probes. But consumer advocates like Bill McGee are not satisfied.

MCGEE: The investigation should have been over two years ago.

SCHAPER: McGee says there have been thousands of complaints against airlines for denying refunds for canceled flights since the start of the pandemic. And the DOT has been slow to act. The DOT is also telling airlines they'll face stricter regulations if they don't stop charging extra fees for families to sit together. Most airlines charge fees for preferred seating like window and aisle seats and for seats closer to the front of the plane. That could make it difficult for families with young children to book seats together without paying extra. Again, consumer advocate Bill McGee.

MCGEE: And it's just mind-boggling that the airlines, of all the different ways they find to charge us fees and nickel and dime us to do this, you know, separating young children - it's just absurd.

SCHAPER: And the DOT announced last week its first ever Bill of Rights for passengers with disabilities. Kenneth Shiotani of the National Disability Rights Network says it spells out that passengers with disabilities are entitled to seating accommodations and assistance among other rights.

KENNETH SHIOTANI: I do think that the important provision is the first one, which is the right to be treated with dignity and respect. I mean, we think that that's, you know, a very clear message to the airline industry and the airports.

SCHAPER: Shiotani says as difficult as air travel has been for most travelers this summer, it's especially trying for those with disabilities. He and others hope the Disabled Passengers Bill of Rights will usher in improvements in passenger assistance and service for everyone. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELTRON 3030 SONG, "3030") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.