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TravelDOT Sec. Pete Buttigieg is a points and miles fan — but...

DOT Sec. Pete Buttigieg is a points and miles fan — but he tells TPG he turns down the free upgrades


It takes a traveler to know travel.

Pete Buttigieg is arguably the most prominent Secretary of Transportation to serve since the cabinet position was created in the 1960s.

Some of that is just smart politicking.

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Americans have become increasingly frustrated with airlines and air travel. Since taking office, Buttigieg has been visible at the forefront of various Biden administration initiatives and has pushed for passenger rights, limits on “junk fees” and better operational performance among the airlines, while working through a decadeslong air traffic controller shortage that’s reached a critical level. Holding the airlines to account is an easy populist win.

But another part of it is that Buttigieg is a frequent flyer for work and an overall travel buff and AvGeek.

“Air travel is a miracle,” Buttigieg told TPG during an interview Thursday following a press conference at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT). “The fact that I’m reading memos in a seat in the sky as part of how I start my Monday morning.”

“There’s a magic to that, even 100 years into the aviation age, that I hope we never lose track of,” he added.

Related: Biden administration targets ‘junk fees’ tacked on to hotel stays, airfare and credit cards

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It’s an energizing perspective for someone who travels for work at least once a week, almost entirely on whatever flight he can grab (like most high-ranking officials, Buttigieg has occasionally flown on government aircraft when commercial options weren’t viable for various reasons).

And while those trips are all for a purpose — for meetings with stakeholders, events, for the chance to see the real-world impact of various policies — the flights themselves, and the chance to visit various parts of the air travel system firsthand, are useful to him as the industry’s chief regulator, he said.

“You see patterns,” he said. “It’s one thing to see one air traffic control tower; it’s another thing to be in 10 of them.”

But for Buttigieg, travel has always been about more than the infrastructure and logistics, he said.

As have points and miles.

Buttigieg’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Malta while pursuing his doctorate degree. He often flew to Italy in the course of his research, Buttigieg said, which meant accumulating a decent stash of miles over the years.

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“He would save up those miles and points and every couple of years, it meant we could go to Malta to see my family,” he said. In the classic tradition of award travel, sometimes that could mean taking a wild routing to score seats at a lower tier on the award chart — like flying from South Bend, Indiana, to Chicago to London to Rome before finally flying on to Malta.

“It took two or three days, but it meant that I got to see my grandmother and all my aunts and uncles and cousins, and as a kid, it was just such magic,” Buttigieg said, remembering that his father used to keep a log of every single flight he’d taken — something many travel aficionados still do today, with digital services like Flightradar24’s flight log or the Flighty app.

Recalling those trips to see extended family, and the way that saving miles for a few years was a viable strategy, Buttigieg alluded to the Department of Transportation’s open investigation into frequent flyer programs and allegations of misleading behavior on the part of airlines.

“I’m concerned about some of the arbitrary devaluations of points, or these fees that get attached to everything,” he said.

Buttigieg, meanwhile, collects plenty of miles during his work travel, just like any other passenger, though he said he pays less attention to his status — he prefers to decline upgrades to avoid any false appearance of impropriety.

“I don’t want to be photographed in first class,” he said.

He tends to use miles these days for a variety of trips, whenever it makes the most sense, rather than saving them all up.

“We’ll figure out whether we’re better off using airline miles, credit card points, or money,” he said.

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Despite any romantic notions of what travel can be, Buttigieg noted that there are inherent challenges and unpleasantries involved, especially for people who aren’t frequent business travelers but might fly once every couple of years for the holidays.

“The worst is when you really need to be somewhere and there’s a disruption, right?” he asked. “That’s a constant headache that I think about both as a traveler and as a policymaker.”

“I think everybody gets that weather happens, things happen,” he added. But when there are chronic or ongoing issues within the airline’s control, things that airlines “could and should do differently, that’s when I think we’ve got to lean in.”

For instance, late last year, the DOT fined Southwest Airlines a record-breaking $140 million over its operational collapse during the 2022 holiday season, which left 2 million Americans stranded all across the country as the airline struggled to regain its footing following a winter storm.

Of course, some delays — like the congested airspace surrounding the Northeast and much of Florida — can be linked to the DOT and the Federal Aviation Administration’s shortage of air traffic controllers. That’s also been a priority for the administration, with Buttigieg telling TPG in January that the hiring of new controllers had finally accelerated.

“I’m encouraged by that, but I’m also very concerned because we need to pick up the pace on that hiring to make sure it stays ahead of retirements and departures,” he said at the time.

Aside from the frustrations of dealing with delays, Buttigieg said that opaque and unfair fare structures, particularly for less frequent travelers, are one of the more frustrating things he’s observed through his time in the air and on the ground.

“If you aren’t getting the value you thought you were getting,” he said. “That’s something that can be a consistent headache too.”

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“In any other market, you know what the price of something is and then you make your decision on whose product to buy, and that can be a little fuzzier,” he added.

But still, to Buttigieg, the frustrations are an aside to the joys of air travel.

“There’s something deeply human about marveling at flight, because it kicks off at such a young age. Our son’s vocabulary had 10 words in it and one of them was ‘airplane.’ Our daughter, too.”

“When they see an airplane, when we’re traveling, when we take them to a museum and we look at airplanes and everything that surrounds them, there’s just a magic to it.”

And from the perspective of a policymaker and regulator, the achievements that have been made in safety in air travel are something to admire, Buttigieg said, even as the FAA continues to work to improve safety measures in light of several recent incidents.

“I’m trying to get an area like roadway safety to catch up to that culture,” he said, “because we tolerate a level of heartbreak in roadway crashes that we never would in aviation.”

But on the theme of the day — infrastructure — Buttigieg said that the key focus is on making sure that the country’s air travel system is up to date and ready to serve.

“Every time I come to an airport,” Buttigieg said, “I find myself wondering what people are on their way to.”

“What we know,” he added, “is that no matter what brings you to the airport, so much depends on the airport being ready to meet your needs.”

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