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Yahoo Finance Presents: Senator Ed Markey

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Senator Ed Markey, the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, sat down with Yahoo Finance’s Adam Shapiro to discuss his work with airlines throughout the pandemic, the traveler’s bill of rights, and his thoughts on progress with the Build Back Better bill.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ADAM SHAPIRO: Senator Markey, thank you for joining us. I want to ask you, just, when we look at the airlines, as taxpayers, we gave them-- in some cases, lent them, but the majority of it was a grant-- $54 billion, the Payroll Support Program. Is it-- are we able to determine if that money was used wisely? Because they told us it was going to keep them from having to lay off employees. And yet, they have labor shortages.

ED MARKEY: I think that for the large part, they kept their employees on the job. Flight attendants benefited from it. Other airline employees, they benefited from it as well. The problem that I have is not with whether or not we should have bailed out the airlines. We should have. We had to keep them going. It's now how do they treat their own passengers. And they fare to them as passengers in the same way that the passenger as a taxpayer was trying to help out the airlines.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Well, what about there's this issue of the refunds. You know, if you bought a ticket before the pandemic, you never got a refund. And then there was the implementation of you're supposed to get a refund. Where do we stand on that?

ED MARKEY: Well, the airlines are refusing to give back the $20 billion, which they have from passengers to purchase tickets. And they're continuing to keep that money. And in some instances, they're saying we'll give you a voucher, but it's a voucher to fly in the future that has a time deadline on it when people should have a right to say there's no expiration date on that voucher, that if I don't want to take my family on a plane in January of 2022 or February or March or April and May, as the pandemic continues to rise, that should be my right. And the airlines are just refusing to give passengers that kind of flexibility to protect their own families from the pandemic.

ADAM SHAPIRO: So how can Congress address that? Could it be, like, an unlimited dates specific voucher or an actual "give me back my cash"?

ED MARKEY: Yeah, Senator Blumenthal from Connecticut and I just recently wrote to all of the CEOs of the airline industry, saying it should be unlimited, that this should not be an expiration date on any voucher that any passenger has to fly on a plane. The passenger and their family should determine when it's safe to get on. And so that's where we are right now. Senator Blumenthal and I are escalating the pressure from the Senate. And we're going to be enlisting the Department of Transportation in order to further ensure that the airline industry knows that a spotlight is on them. And we expect them to be fair.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Let's talk about actually what's going on inside the airplanes, first from the passenger standpoint. The airlines keep telling us that the HEPA filtration systems are sufficient to protect us. The TSA in January is going to make a determination about whether masks should be extended. I think it's a probable bet that they're going to extend the mask mandate. But the airlines say it's not necessary. What does the committee think?

ED MARKEY: My view is that we can put an infinity sign next to when this pandemic is going to come to an end. What we do know is that there are tens of millions of Americans who are refusing to be vaccinated. To say to a passenger who has been vaccinated or a situation where they've got a child who's three or four or five years old, who has not been vaccinated, that they are going to be sitting next to another passenger that has no mask on and is unvaccinated, I think is reckless.

I asked the CEOs of the airline companies about that. Shockingly, the airlines believe that there should be an end date to a mask mandate. And I just completely disagree with that. I think--

ADAM SHAPIRO: But ultimately, won't that be the-- I believe the CDC and the TSA make the ultimate decision about whether there's going to be a mask mandate or not, right?

ED MARKEY: That is true. But at the same time, it's shocking to hear the attitudes of the airline CEOs. We could have a situation if they had their way where there would be unvaccinated passengers on planes not wearing masks, sitting next to small children who are unvaccinated. And that's a very troubling, disturbing, set of comments that we heard in the Senate Commerce Committee.

ADAM SHAPIRO: There's the other issue that involves-- I have friends who are flight attendants. I have friends who are pilots. And we all know the stories about passengers getting out of hand, especially since the airlines have recovered since the pandemic shutdown. And I believe it was Sarah Nelson from the Flight Attendants Union recommended just ban alcohol on all flights because 60% of incidents are tied to the individual drinking. Would that make sense? I mean, would we be punishing those of us who might enjoy an adult beverage responsibly if we were to ban alcohol?

ED MARKEY: I was part of the effort 34 years ago to begin the ban on smoking on flights that everyone thought was an absolute right that every passenger should have. And I did that. Senator Durbin led that effort, but I was part of it with Congressman Waxman. And it seemed at the time to be revolutionary. Today, it's like, of course, we don't allow people to smoke on planes. I think that at this time, given the level of volatility in the skies that we're seeing with passengers who are almost ideologically in opposition to any mask mandate or any control of how people are traveling, leads to, inevitably, and sad to say, a ban on alcohol as well.

ADAM SHAPIRO: But I mean--

ED MARKEY: This whole situation is put under control.

ADAM SHAPIRO: But what I hear you saying, though, it's not a permanent ban. But until we're out of the pandemic--

ED MARKEY: Yeah--

ADAM SHAPIRO: It's a temporary ban?

ED MARKEY: There are more than 5,000 incidents already that have been violent in nature on planes. And so many of them are tied to alcohol. So again, it's not the alcohol necessarily, but it's unacceptable behavior in the skies, dangerous behavior in the skies, that, right now, is still out of control.

ADAM SHAPIRO: So--

ED MARKEY: And we have to do whatever it takes in order to make those skies more safe. Safety--

ADAM SHAPIRO: So who could--

ED MARKEY: --on planes is the most important issue. And it's just a matter of us making the right decisions here. And alcohol is clearly helping to fuel this epidemic of violent behavior on planes.

ADAM SHAPIRO: How would you ban-- how would a ban look-- what would it look like? It would be temporary is what I'm hearing you say, but who would implement it? Would it take an act of Congress? Would it be the FAA? Who would implement such a ban? And again, I want to just reiterate what you're proposing is temporary, not permanent.

ED MARKEY: Well, I think it would have to be the Department of Transportation looking at the overall safety needs of the skies right now, as, unfortunately, passions are intensifying, rather than abating, and that more and more people just feel that it's their constitutional right not to have to wear a mask on a plane. And if that opposition is then fueled by alcohol on that plane, it creates a dangerous situation, not just for the flight attendants, but for the passengers on that plane as well.

ADAM SHAPIRO: All right, last question on this issue because I want to get to a couple of other things. Will you approach Secretary Buttigieg at DOT to-- excuse me, not Secretary Buttigieg, but would you approach the secretary to you impose such a ban?

ED MARKEY: Well, I have not sent a letter on that subject yet. But I think it's such an important subject that I'm going to take that pathway under advisement as to whether or not I should be taking that action. But I do think that the DOT should be looking at it. And perhaps that will be the source of my inquiry.

ADAM SHAPIRO: In my defense, I had it right the first time. I should have stuck with Secretary Buttigieg. Let me switch gears. Before the pandemic, United Airlines launched a program to train pilots. We knew we were going to face a pilot shortage. Today, Scott Kirby, the CEO, testified that they could have 100 more flights in the air, but they have a pilot shortage. Is it time to allow people to take out government-backed student loans to get their pilot's license?

ED MARKEY: Well, if we have a crisis in pilots and, you know, we need to find alternative pathways in order to replenish that pool of pilots, then that's something that we should consider. At the same time, perhaps we can consider the airlines raising the pay of pilots so that more of them do come back to work. So that's perhaps an alternative route that could be pursued by the airlines themselves.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Then, finally, a traveler bill of rights, we have all experienced if we have flown the inevitable weather delay. The airlines sometimes point to weather delays when it might not be the weather. What legitimately could be done to protect us as passengers from those kinds of delays, to make sure we get to where we need to go, or at least, get some kind of legitimate refund, but also not to jeopardize the airlines because they certainly can't control the weather?

ED MARKEY: Well, ultimately, we have to make sure that passengers are given the option of getting refunds whenever they want, if they think that their health, their safety is at risk. And that's something that I think we should put on the books. I'm an original sponsor of the airline passenger bill of rights that is pending before the Commerce Committee.

And it's not just that issue. It's every issue. Why should the airlines be able to charge you an exorbitant fee if you want to change your ticket? Why should they be able to charge an exorbitant fee to put the first bag, the second bag, the third bag on a plane? It might cost you $150. It's issue after issue, where the airlines are tipping consumers upside down at the counter, shaking money out of their pockets. And we need a passenger bill of rights in order to make sure that we give every American right in their negotiations with the airline industry.

ADAM SHAPIRO: During the pandemic, they had suspended the change fees. Are the airlines-- I'm not aware if they've re-imposed them, but I can research that. But are they now imposing change fees once again?

ED MARKEY: Well, right now, some of the airlines have eliminated some of the change fees-- not all of them. And I just think it's absolutely essential that we just have that as a uniform policy as well. When you're changing a flight, there should be no extra fees. It's just a couple of more keystrokes for an airline employee to make that change. It shouldn't cost 100 bucks or 150 bucks. It shouldn't be more expensive than the actual original ticket was for the passenger that they were purchasing.

ADAM SHAPIRO: I want to switch gears. And I appreciate your talking to us about the airlines, but I've got a US senator right here. What are the chances the Build Back Better plan is going to get passed in some form by the US Senate? And do you talk with Senator Manchin about what is it he wants?

ED MARKEY: Well, I talked to Senator Manchin about the climate-related concerns which he has. Other members talked about the issues that they are leaning on with him. I still remain very hopeful that we will be able to get a Build Back Better bill passed before Christmas. We're all working very hard to resolve all of these issues. We're working with the parliamentarian in terms of what can be proposed as part of this package. We're talking to Senator Manchin about what he has as remaining objections.

My hope is that we can resolve them and get it passed. I think it's an important Christmas present for the American people because it will help solve the climate crisis, ensure that there's free pre-K for three and four-year-olds in our country, $150 billion to help seniors at home with any illnesses which they have, leave policy for-- and child care tax breaks for families. It's a big, big package. My hope is that we can resolve them. We're listening very closely to Senator Manchin, trying to accommodate him. And I'm very hopeful that we will be able to do so successfully.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Clock is ticking. As I'm talking to you, Christmas is 10 days away. Last question, I promise, sir, the Freedom to Vote Act. A lot of people are also, again, pointing to Senator Manchin as, you know, what can be done. Will a Freedom to Vote Act in some form become law before the midterm elections or the 2024 presidential election?

ED MARKEY: Well, we have to choose between democracy and the filibuster. And we need full voting rights, some type of exemption to the filibuster so that we can ensure in the same way we just were able to increase the debt ceiling by having an exception to the filibuster, we need to do the same thing for voting rights. I know that Senator Manchin is still talking I think sincerely about a pathway to finding a way to protect voters in our country.

I've heard Senator Raphael Warnock from Georgia who now preaches from the same church, Ebenezer Church, that Martin Luther King, Jr. did. He's our senator from Georgia right now. Just speak passionately about what's happening in Georgia and other states, about laws which are passing, which suppress the votes, especially of Black and Brown citizens in our country. So it's absolutely essential that we solve this problem.

And we're going to need Joe Manchin's cooperation to change the filibuster, at least for voting rights, so that we can put protections on the books and to do it soon. And I know that he's still engaged in deep and, I think, very sincere conversations with Senator Warnock, Senator Padilla from California, and others who really do lead on this issue.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Senator Ed Markey from the state of Massachusetts, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a pleasure.

ED MARKEY: Thank you. Glad to be with you.