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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to airlines: This year's travel disruptions "unacceptable"

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Thousands of flights delayed or canceled
U.S. airports plagued by thousands of flight delays and cancellations 04:16

As air travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels in the past several months, airports and airlines have struggled to keep up with the increase in demand. CBS News has obtained a letter Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent to JetBlue Airways in which he called the frequent flight delays and cancelations in the U.S. "unacceptable."

In the Thursday letter, Buttigieg said he wrote to nine of the nation's other leading airlines as well.

According to the letter, an estimated 24% of domestic flights were delayed and 3.2% were canceled in the first half of 2022.

In order to help customers, the Department of Transportation is creating a website — scheduled to go live before Labor Day weekend — that will clearly display each airline's cancellation, delay and refund policies, Buttigieg said.

Air travel delays and cancellations hit travelers over July 4 weekend 04:23

"When passengers do experience cancellations and delays, they deserve clear and transparent information on the services that your airline will provide, to address the expenses and inconveniences resulting from these disruptions," Buttigieg said. 

He also called on the airlines to provide meal vouchers to customers whose delays are longer than three hours, and to provide lodging to those who have to stay overnight due to disruptions with their flight that are "within the carrier's control."

"Regardless of the cause of the delays or cancellations, the Department expects airlines to provide timely and responsive customer service during and after periods of flight disruptions," the secretary said.

In response to the letter, industry group Airlines for America said in a statement that U.S. airlines are facing an array of challenges in the wake of the pandemic, including a "tight labor market." But, it said, airlines are willing to work with the Department of Transportation, and have been acting in accordance with federal regulations.

A4A noted that in 2020 and 2021, U.S. airlines issued a total of $21.8 billion in cash refunds to their customers.

Air travel refund complaints soared during the pandemic 05:49

A4A also said that weather and the National Airspace System caused 63% of flight cancellations in the first five months of 2022. Airlines also cut back on their summer schedules to ensure they could remain reliable to their customers.

"Carriers strive to provide the highest level of customer service and look forward to working with the DOT to continue providing transparency for the traveling public," A4A wrote.

CBS News has reached out to several major U.S. airlines seeking comment. Alaska, American, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United all directed to the A4A statement.

In its own statement, Delta said it is focused on "strong operational performance" — noting that only 15 of its 20,000 total flights last weekend were canceled. It also said it has refunded over 11 million tickets totaling $6 billion since the start of 2020.

"As always, Delta continues to provide full and timely refunds to eligible passengers requesting them when we have cancelled a flight or made a significant schedule change," the statement said.

Over the past several months, U.S. airports have seen a spike in the number of travelers going through TSA screening and boarding flights. However, the rate of flight cancellations is up nearly one-third since the same time in 2019, while the rate of delays is up nearly one-fourth, the Associated Press reports.

The airlines have blamed the Federal Aviation Administration for delays, while the FAA claimed the airlines are flying schedules they can't physically support, and pilots blamed the airlines for increased workloads and flying hours they claim could be a safety issue. Meanwhile, just before the Fourth of July weekend, also called "airmageddon," CBS News reported that passenger complaints against airlines were up 300% over 2019.

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