The long lines, canceled flights, staffing shortages and customer service nightmares that have plagued the airline industry for the last year might be on the decline, but aren’t going away anytime soon.

That’s according to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg who told the Deseret News on Friday that he expects the current issues to persist through Thanksgiving and into Christmas.

“It’s going to take a while for the pilot workforce to be back up to pre-COVID levels,” he said in an interview, noting that in some cases demand is higher now than it was before the pandemic.

“I don’t think this is going to be resolved overnight,” Buttigieg said.

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, center, speaks to Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Summit County Council Chairman Chris Robinson after a roundtable with firefighters and community leaders at Unified Fire Authority Station 119 in Emigration Canyon on Friday, July 29, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Buttigieg spoke with the Deseret News on Friday during his stop in Utah, where he unveiled new funding for infrastructure projects alongside Gov. Spencer Cox, part of the recent $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. Buttigieg also met with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, local leaders and firefighters about wildfire prevention at the Emigration Canyon fire station.

And while transportation resilience was the theme of the day, the secretary says his department is still engaging in daily talks with the airline industry.

“I have frequent conversations with them. And what we’ve seen is encouraging, but there’s a long way to go,” he said.

Cancellation rates are not as high as they were in the spring and early summer, hovering around 3% or 4% — they’re now down to around 2%, which is starting to resemble “normal,” Buttigieg said.

In addition, some airlines have made an effort to improve pay for pilots, while allocating more resources for customer service and changing policies to account for inconsistent fares and refunds. Some airlines are also changing their flight schedules “to match the reality of their staffing.”

“We’ve certainly seen improvements since the unacceptable conditions that happened around the Memorial Day weekend,” Buttigieg said.

But the problems persist — in the U.S., over 12,000 flights were delayed during Fourth of July weekend, with more than 1,000 cancellations. London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport both recently cut passenger capacity and forced airlines to cancel flights. German airline Lufthansa canceled almost all of its flights in Frankfurt and Munich this week, stranding thousands of passengers.

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Travel is at a record high — but flight delays and cancellations are on the rise, too
Delta airplanes are pictured at the Salt Lake City Airport on Friday, July 29, 2022. According to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg the long lines, canceled flights, staffing shortages and customer service nightmares that have plagued the airline industry for the last year might be on the decline, but aren’t going away anytime soon. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

And as of Friday afternoon, there were nearly 1,600 delayed flights across the U.S. and 278 cancellations, according to Flight Aware.

There are a number of factors — many airlines blame airports and governments for congested airspace and air traffic control staffing issues. Bad weather has also canceled a number of flights this year. And across the board, both airlines and airports are dealing with staffing shortages.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham recently put forth a bill that would raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67 in an attempt to keep more people on the job.

Buttigieg isn’t sold on that approach.

“I’m not comfortable with anything that could impact safety,” he said “... If they had the data that showed there would be no safety impacts, we could have a conversation about that, but so far I’m not comfortable with any of the proposals that seem to be about softening safety rules.”

Buttigieg said some solutions could come from his department — others, particularly anything dealing with safety, would require an act of Congress.

As for the levers that the Department of Transportation can pull, Buttigieg pointed to the consumer protection program, which is currently investigating a number of complaints over airlines failing to issue refunds, some of which will result in enforcement action soon.

Collaborating to manage the national airspace is another priority, he said, to address choke points that often result in delays or cancellations.

The department is also assessing the definition of unfair and deceptive practices “to make sure it gives us the room to do what we need to do,” Buttigieg said.

Travelers walk through the Salt Lake City Airport on Friday, July 29, 2022. According to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg the long lines, canceled flights, staffing shortages and customer service nightmares that have plagued the airline industry for the last year might be on the decline, but aren’t going away anytime soon. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News