WASHINGTON — Air travel stinks right now, creating just the kind of crisis that a politically adept and ambitious transportation secretary might turn to his advantage.
Americans want someone — anyone — to fix the problems: delays, cancellations, skyrocketing ticket prices.
The stakes could hardly be higher for the official tasked with finding solutions, and that’s Pete Buttigieg, 40, the former presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Flying fiascoes represent the first major test of whether he’s competent enough to lead an agency that stunts the small-city government he once ran. Compared to with South Bend, the Department of Transportation has roughly 50 times the workforce and a budget that is 370 times larger. And his performance, under scrutiny from former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and others, promises to shape his future within the Democratic Party.
“You have a mayor of a small city with a tiny public transportation department now responsible for transportation in a country that is huge,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, a former top Sanders aide. “And the question is, is that an appropriate qualification?”
The turbulence is a plot twist for Buttigieg, one of the most high-profile members of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet. Up to this point, he’s capitalized on his position and proved to be an asset inside an administration where overall approval ratings are hitting record lows. Buttigieg has maintained a robust television and social media presence, reassured Black communities that were cool to him in his 2020 presidential bid, and crisscrossed the country promoting an infrastructure package that was Biden’s signature achievement. Because he is so recognizable and his name so often floated as a possible 2024 contender should Biden not seek re-election, virtually everything Buttigieg does gets outsize attention. If he can somehow curb the spate of flight delays and cancellations, he would give Biden a sorely needed boost — while giving his own executive credentials more heft.
The Cabinet post that Buttigieg landed after Biden’s victory in 2020 “is all upside,” said Steve Elmendorf, a former Democratic House leadership aide and Buttigieg campaign supporter. “Unless you screw it up.”
There’s no single cause for the problems aggravating air travelers. Carriers are facing a shortage of pilots, while the federal government has struggled to fully staff security checkpoints, creating long lines for passenger screening. Covid-19 lockdowns created a pent-up demand for travel that the aviation industry has struggled to meet.
Sanders, who hasn’t ruled out a third run for the presidency, sent Buttigieg a pointed letter last month pressing him to take “immediate action” to curb flight delays and protect the rights of passengers.
“Taxpayers bailed out the airline industry during their time of…