Pete Buttigieg firmly believes the person in the middle should get both. But in this four-seat center row, there are two middle seats.

“This is unusual,” he says to the reporter sitting next to him.

“You can share,” he says, demonstrating how one person’s elbow can rest near the back and the other’s near the front, or vice versa.

Like all road warriors, Buttigieg has strong feelings about air travel: who gets the elbow space, his preferred window shade position (up), whether it’s acceptable to recline (yes) and the best in-flight snacks (stroopwafel).

But his strongest feeling – backed by a flurry of new policies, rule proposals and pressure campaigns – is that airlines have gotten a pass from regulators and need to do better by passengers.

“On one hand, flying is a miracle, and it’s an extraordinary thing that we’re able to do,” he said, in a car that whisked him from Denver International Airport. “But it’s also true that it’s become more and more frustrating in many ways. And the airlines aren’t going to fix that on their own; they need to be pushed.”

As the nation’s top transportation official, Buttigieg has responsibilities beyond air travel: He has responded to backlogs at California ports, a train derailment in Ohio and the Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore. But between the pandemic, airline meltdowns, air-traffic-controller shortages and Boeing safety concerns, he’s overseen an unusually tumultuous stretch of aviation history. And he knows the time for his agenda is running out.

In interviews, announcements and public speeches over the past few months, Buttigieg has challenged airlines with an urgency driven by the calendar. Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, he said he plans to “sprint” to the finish line.

The prize he eyes? “I really want this to be known as the period when we did the biggest expansion in passenger rights since deregulation, and I think we can hit that mark,” he said.

As for what comes next, the 2020 presidential candidate isn’t saying. Even if President Biden wins in November, it would be unusual for Buttigieg to keep his job for much longer; most transportation secretaries don’t stay far beyond one term.

“This job takes 110 percent of what I’ve got, and so I know that the best thing I can do with the time we have here is to make the most of it,” he said.


On a recent Tuesday, Buttigieg arrived at his gate in Washington Dulles International Airport shortly after 7 a.m. for an 8:15 a.m. flight to Denver.

Government employees book economy, but because he flies so often, Buttigieg is frequently upgraded by the airlines. On this flight, his group has ended up with extra legroom in an “economy plus” row – behind the lavatory.

“I’m not going to learn that much about passenger protection if I’m sitting up in first class,” he said.

He said he thinks about airlines as a policymaker and a passenger but also as a parent. He refers to a truism he embraced as mayor of South Bend, Ind. “You eat what you cook,” he said.

Or in this case, you fly the airlines you regulate.

Airport celebrity

After landing early from Dulles, Buttigieg walked fast through the Denver airport with his security detail and aides, eschewing moving walkways. He was on a tight schedule as usual, though his flights don’t always cooperate so well.

He said people approach him frequently, sometimes for a photo, sometimes to share a note, sometimes to vent. He has gotten well-wishes from flight attendants scrawled on napkins, a note of encouragement written on a barf bag and lobbying from pilots on potential changes to the retirement age. People sometimes guess his email and copy him on their notes to airlines, or include him in social media complaints.

Buttigieg said it’s a good thing to hear from people when they have a problem – though the Transportation Department’s consumer complaint form is the best way.

“If I get talking to the person next to me on the plane, sometimes I get a very detailed picture of their experience,” he said.

He recalled once meeting a couple who were stuck at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

“Of course they wanted to know what I was going to do about it,” he said.

When Buttigieg began his tenure in early 2021, airlines were in recovery mode because the pandemic had largely halted travel. As travel ramped back up, short-staffed carriers struggled to manage the demand – despite receiving billions of dollars in a federal bailout to protect airline jobs. Delays and cancellations spiked.

At one point in the chaotic summer of 2022, Buttigieg said, he called a Zoom meeting with the CEOs of major airlines, pushing them to do better as a stand-in for the flying public. “And then (I) woke up the next morning, and my flight was canceled,” he said. “I think that was kind of the most dramatic moment of frustration.”

Consumer groups were frustrated, too.

“I felt that he was not using his authority – that he was asking the airlines to step up and do the right thing,” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. “My viewpoint is that will never work.”


The travel woes of 2022 culminated with the Southwest Airlines meltdown over the Christmas holiday that wreaked havoc on travel for 2 million people. A year later, the department fined the airline a record $140 million.

It can take even longer to formally get a new rule on the books. The department started the process in 2022 for two rules that only just became final. One requires airlines to automatically refund passengers if their flights are canceled or significantly delayed, and they choose not to travel. The other mandates more transparency around fees.

In September 2022, the department took a different approach, beginning a period when Buttigieg “kind of started kicking some butt,” said Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

In 2022, just in time for Labor Day, the Transportation Department launched a public-facing dashboard at to show what each airline pledged to do for customers in case of delays or cancellations. To get a green check mark on the dashboard, airlines had to make assurances about hotel accommodations, food vouchers, rebooking and other benefits in their own customer service plans. Some actually changed their plans to promise better care for passengers, Buttigieg said.

“What the dashboard taught us is that it’s not just the hard power we have to issue rules and enforce rules, it’s also the power of transparency,” he said.

Murray said she has frustrations with the department on other fronts, but the pressure and public awareness forced airlines’ hands: “I think that’s brilliant, and it’s worked.”

The Transportation Department has since rolled out a comparison of airline policies about fee-free family seating. A new dashboard highlighting travel benefits for members of the military is forthcoming.

Among other measures, since last year the department has proposed or finalized rules over airline lavatory accessibility and protections for wheelchair users; launched a review of the way U.S. airlines handle customers’ information; held a public hearing on airline loyalty programs and credit cards; and formed an agreement with multiple state attorneys general to allow states to investigate consumer complaints and refer them to the Transportation Department for enforcement.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trajectory like I’ve seen in the last year or so at the DOT,” said McGee, who appeared with Buttigieg last month at the announcement of transparency and refund rules. Back in 2022, McGee had dismissed the dashboard as not going far enough – calling it “lipstick on a pig” – but he has since changed his tune. “I’ve never seen any sort of department or public official turn things around so quickly and so decisively.”


For travelers who use wheelchairs, a proposed rule to hold airlines more accountable for damaging or destroying assistive devices has been welcome.

“We have been fighting for accessible, affordable transportation for a long time, administration after administration,” said Theo Braddy, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living – and a wheelchair user who hasn’t flown in 30 years. “This one hit differently, no doubt.”

Not everyone has been as enamored of Buttigieg’s moves. Many consumer watchdog groups say the department hasn’t been hard enough on airlines.

Within the airline industry, officials have questioned the significance of Transportation Department measures such as the customer service dashboard and the new refund rules, saying their companies already offered the required benefits in many cases. Industry officials also share a perception that the administration does not believe airlines are competitive enough, despite the fact that they battle for customers by offering low fares while facing high costs for labor and fuel.

Buttigieg said that airlines, “unsurprisingly,” have not been enthusiastic about efforts to hold them to a higher standard. He thinks it will be good for them in the long run.

“I think if your customers are mad at you, that’s not good for your business long-term,” Buttigieg said. “I want airlines to succeed, but I want them to succeed by providing good service.”

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