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While weather is always a factor, Buttigieg says air travel is in better shape

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More holiday travelers than ever are expected to board planes this weekend. And ahead of July 4, the website FlightAware has already tracked hundreds of flight cancellations today and even more delays. Extreme heat that's cooking up weather delays is a problem. The airlines also blame the Federal Aviation Administration and a shortage of air traffic controllers. So we're turning to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to ask what's going on. Good morning, Secretary.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Good morning. Good to be with you.

FADEL: Thanks for being here. So for the 2.8 million people that the TSA says will fly today, is air travel in any better shape than last summer, when airlines canceled more than 20% of their flights?

BUTTIGIEG: Absolutely. For one thing, passengers have dramatically more protections than they had about a year ago. If you go to our website, flightrights.gov, you can get more information about the binding commitments that we've gotten from airlines to take care of passengers in a number of scenarios. As of a year ago, not one of the major airlines promised that you could even get things like meals, vouchers, ground transportation in a case where the airline was responsible for you being stranded. Now, nearly all of them do. So that's improved, and on-time performance has improved as well.

What we saw last year was even on so-called blue-sky days, we had often unusually high rates of cancellation and delay. This year, that's not been true. We had very busy travel weekends and periods where we didn't see those kinds of delays. But, of course, severe weather can have a major impact. And that's what we're seeing this week. Going - coming out of the weekend, going into the first part of this week, a lot of that weather simultaneously hit multiple key hubs. And that led to an unusually high number of cancellations and delays this week. Now we're seeing the system come back to normal, although it's depending a little bit from airline to airline what the results are.

FADEL: So you mentioned the weather, but the CEO of United Airlines blamed FAA staffing issues after they canceled almost 800 flights on Tuesday. Is that also part of the problem?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the data that we have and even the data from the airline industry suggests that ATC staffing issues account for less than 10% of the delay minutes that you see. So it is a factor, and a factor that we're working very aggressively on. One thing that I do agree with airline leadership on is that we need to get more resources, both for staffing and technology, to the FAA. And there's a reauthorization bill actually right now working its way through Congress that would help with that.

But I want to be very clear that ATC staffing issues are not the main cause. They're not even the No. 2 cause of these delays. And in the case of United, what you saw is that they were really having issues that were particular to that airline. By yesterday, the cancellation rate across the system, except for United, was back to 2%, which you'd basically consider to be a normal level. They were about 10 times that. But they do appear to be improving as well off of their worst day, which would have been Tuesday. And we're hopeful that today they can get their operations back to normal.

FADEL: Now, Saturday is also the deadline for airlines to adapt their tech to 5G wireless signals. Engineers say 5G could interfere with equipment on older planes. Are you prepared for disruptions from that?

BUTTIGIEG: Yes, this is another issue we're watching closely, along with the severe weather and potential impacts from the Canadian wildfire smoke. What you have here is a process that's been going on for the last year and a half where the airlines have known that they need to adapt their aircraft to make sure that their equipment is able to operate safely even while the power gets turned up on this new technology, 5G antennas that the cellphone carriers have been deploying. The majority of the fleet has been upgraded, but there are still a lot of planes out there that have not.

And they, the FAA, is not going to allow anything to take place which isn't safe, which means some of those aircraft may be restricted from operating at certain airports under low visibility conditions. If that happens, we are instructing the airlines to make sure to deal with that in terms of realistic scheduling. In other words, if you're an airline that has some of these aircraft that have not yet been upgraded, you need to make sure your schedule accounts for that. Otherwise, that could be a cause for action. But I will say the airlines have stepped up. They've upgraded the majority of the aircraft. We're watching closely to see how they perform.

FADEL: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Thank you for your time.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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