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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is being asked to help solve several major challenges, from a supply chain crisis to a summer of flight delays and cancellations. The former presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also has the task of overseeing one of the most significant investments in America's infrastructure in more than 50 years. He joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.
From a supply chain crisis to a summer of flight delays and cancellations, all of it has fallen to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to help solve. The 40-year-old former Presidential Candidate and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Indiana also has the task of overseeing one of the most significant investments in American infrastructure, roads, bridges and rail in more than half a century.
I sat down with Secretary Buttigieg for a wide ranging interview at his agency's headquarters, and asked what Americans should expect to see as communities across the country cash in on the President's trillion dollar infrastructure package.
Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation: Well, you're going to see it in ways big and small, and the airports is a good example. So traditionally, we funded — we might call the back of the house on airports, the air traffic control tower, the apron the runway, we still do. But now we've had a program that we can use to fund the terminal, the part that you interact with, as an individual passenger. And we're doing it in communities of all sizes.
I was in L.A. celebrating what we're doing there with a $50 million grant to simplify traffic through what they call the horseshoe, which you can get tied up in, for half an hour, even after you've dropped somebody off.
It ranges from something like that at one of the busiest airports in the world, all the way to a place like Chamberlain, South Dakota, where their general aviation terminal is currently a mobile home. And with less than a million dollars, we can fund them to have a fixed building. Everything in between is the range of what we can do, whether we're talking about airports, whether we're talking about ports, improving bridges, roads, pretty much anything that affects how people in goods move around this country. We're improving it right now with the funds through this infrastructure deal.
And yet, as you revitalize airports, there are lots of Americans who have significant frustrations with air travel, the DOT, just this past week, put out a report and showed that complaints against airlines are on the decline since April, but they're still 200% above pre-pandemic levels. How are you trying to address that?
That's right, our consumer protection office has been overwhelmed with complaints that they are working their way through right now. And I think the flying public is expecting a good level of service from an airline sector that we all rallied to make sure was saved during the worst days —
$50 billion worth of taxpayer money?
That's right, a lot of taxpayer support. And it's a good thing that we did. Otherwise, we might literally not have airlines today. But now the airlines of course need to step up and service the tickets that they sell. We have seen improvements, we saw after Memorial Day weekend, some really unacceptable numbers in terms of cancellations and delays. I've had a lot of conversations with the airlines since then. And we're seeing the cancellation delay rates moving in the right direction, but still a real struggle to keep up when it comes to staffing.
Look, it is a good news — a good piece of news. It's great news, that passengers have the income and the inclination to take trips that they wouldn't or couldn't a year ago, two years ago. We're glad to see the demand back. But now we need to make sure the system can meet that demand.
What about those lawmakers like Bernie Sanders, Democrats, in addition to him, who make the case that that $50 billion, that came with strings attached and that the airlines when they do cancel on folks, when they do have, you know, folks waiting on the Tarmac for X amount of hours, they should be fined heavily?
Well, that's part of what we do as a department. Look, our preferred outcome is that the passenger doesn't have this problem in the first place. But when we find that an airline is, for example, failing to issue prompt refunds, or in some other way, not treating passengers fairly, we will act. As a matter of fact, a few months ago, we issued the stiffest fine in the history of our consumer protection program. And we have ongoing investigations about other practices. Again, we want things to go well, but when they don't, we will act.
One of the most intractable issues, I think, is the pilot shortage, in part because it takes a while to train folks, and doesn't seem to be the number of job candidates coming from the military that you might need. And of course, there's so many pilots who took that early retirement at the height of the pandemic, what's the approach to addressing that?
Well, we really need to build generations of aviation professionals, including pilots. Now, part of it like any issue where you see labor — perceived labor shortage has to do with pay. And so I've been encouraged to see a lot of the airlines, especially the regional airlines, that's more the entry level for a career in commercial aviation. They're upping their pay. I think that's going to make a big difference.
We also got to stimulate and support that spark of wanting to be involved in aviation from a very early age. So we're supporting a college and even high school curricula that help encourage that.
Recently, I was in Compton, neighborhood in Los Angeles that is a low income area where volunteers came together and created a flight school where teenagers, some of them barely old enough to drive are now getting their first solo flights. They have a fantastic, good paying career ahead of them. And we need to do more like that to give people, who maybe haven't had exposure to that in the past, the chance to be part of this because as a country, whether it's aviation, or whether it's construction, we're trying to do so much that we cannot afford to leave any talent on the table.
You are highly regarded among Democrats as being I think, one of the greatest assets in terms of messaging that the party has, what should Democrats do, heading into this midterm election to better explain what they see as their accomplishments?
What I'll say is, this administration has a lot to be proud of. And honestly, I think in normal times, any one of the achievements of this administration, the American Rescue Plan, not to mention the infrastructure law that we're working on, could define an era.
Now, of course, we're not in ordinary times, we've seen a lot of extremism in our country, we've seen huge challenges hitting us whether it's COVID, or inflation in the affordability challenge, that make it that much more challenging to have this conversation with the American people. But if you look at what we've done, especially on infrastructure, where year after year, Congress after Congress and multiple presidents talked about a so called Infrastructure Week, without results. And now it's actually getting done, this is a huge achievement that we need to make sure is well understood, even if that means being maybe a little shameless, compared to how we're used to being on my side of the aisle.
Yeah. Is that the answer to be a little shameless?
Well, I think we shouldn't hesitate to make sure people understand why and how these improvements came to their neighborhood. You know, I was back in my hometown of South Bend, and found myself on a trail that had been built, that I've always wanted to do back when I was mayor, but didn't have the funding. Thanks to funding for the American Rescue Plan. And whether it's small community improvements like that, or the millions of people who were lifted out of poverty. Again, that Rescue Plan alone was a huge deal. We shouldn't be afraid to talk about it, and talk about why it happened. Who was for it? Who was against?
How do you see this current moment? I mean, you are a historic figure, the first openly gay Senate confirmed member of a presidential cabinet. And yet we're living in a moment where Republicans are actively trying to rollback hard won protections and rights of the LGBTQ community. How do you see all that?
Well, I think we're in a very precarious moment. You know, a lot of progress has been made. In my lifetime, a lot of progress was made in the last 50 years. And now we're seeing it, in many ways withdrawn, when the Supreme Court ruled against a woman's right to choose, that I think, prompted many of us to ask, did we just live to see the high watermark of rights and freedoms in our country? You know, historically, rights and freedoms have always expanded, we went from one era to the next. It's always been more free, and more just even if imperfectly so that was before. And the question now is, are we going to start going backwards right now, it is extremely disturbing to — as an — certainly as a married gay man, and a member of the LGBTQ community, not only to see our rights coming up for debate once again, but to see southern law called into question, and to see most members of one of the two political parties when it came to a policy vote in the U.S. Congress, vote against my marriage. I mean, I was at that day, I was testifying in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee having for the most part, what I consider to be very civilized and high minded exchanges with members from both sides of the aisle, on transportation policy and what we were doing about everything from trucking safety to pipeline improvements.
And the thought that a few hours later, some of those same people that I was sitting in that room with, walked down the hall into the House Chamber and voted against my marriage is the troubling thing to take on board.
Secretary Pete Buttigieg, I appreciate your time.
Good to be with you.
Watch the Full Episode
Geoff Bennett is the chief Washington correspondent for PBS NewsHour and anchor of PBS News Weekend.
Lorna Baldwin is an Emmy and Peabody award winning producer at the PBS NewsHour. In her two decades at the NewsHour, Baldwin has crisscrossed the US reporting on issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest to the politics of poverty on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Farther afield, Baldwin reported on the problem of sea turtle nest poaching in Costa Rica, the distinctive architecture of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and world renowned landscape artist, Piet Oudolf.
Senior Editorial Producer
Winston Wilde is a coordinating producer at PBS News Weekend.
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