Another day, another air travel meltdown | Fitness tips of the day

TARMAC TROUBLESThis is your captain speaking, and you’re in for a bumpy ride … if you even manage to make it out of the airport.  

The truth is that airline passengers seldom hear a status report come over the cockpit intercom anymore due to increasing cancellations and delays.

Travel came roaring back over the last year following the pandemic slump, but now air travelers are increasingly returning from the jetway frustrated, confused and downright angry.

Snap storms, computer meltdowns and an FAA glitch have roiled the industry over the last few weeks, with major airports strained amid a crush of passengers, chronic airline overbooking and a workforce that’s still struggling to meet pre-pandemic demands.

Now comes the latest maddening development: A string of unforeseen issues sweeping across Texas in recent days. A mixture of ice and snow has combined to make runways nearly impossible to operate on in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — which is home to both American Airlines and Southwest Airlines — and it’s proving calamitous.

Snow, sleet and ice have knocked out power and forced operations to stop at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport before. But this time, passengers are seeing preemptive cancellations from the two airlines, with one of them already in the doghouse with its customers for its abysmal performance over Christmas week that left passengers sleeping at airports, thousands of bags misplaced, and frazzled flyers searching for alternative ways to get home.

That would be Southwest, which suffered a holiday meltdown so notorious that it prompted NBC’s Saturday Night Live to issue a new tagline for the airline: “If it’s that important to you, just walk.”

Today alone, American canceled or delayed more than 1,200 flights; Southwest, meanwhile racked up more than 950 flights canceled or delayed. Most of these cancellations originate or are destined for either DFW or Dallas Love Field Airport, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, both of which are major transfer points for people traveling all over the country. That’s led to cascading delays because of the sheer number of planes that need to pass through, even if a passenger’s final destination is nowhere nearby.

Southwest told POLITICO it’s made “schedule adjustments to support our operation at airports affected by” the winter storm this week, not just for getting pilots and flight attendants to planes on time but also for ground crews “to load, unload and de-ice aircraft” to keep its flights moving safely and smoothly.

Brewing in the background is Southwest’s larger goal of making things right with its passengers and winning back trust — or at least approval — after its Christmas week debacle. The Transportation Department has vowed “extraordinary efforts” to ensure customers are compensated for those troubles, and is probing whether the airline set schedules it knew it couldn’t properly staff.

But at some point, this all sounds the same, doesn’t it? Buzzwords about proactive scheduling measures, easing congestion on the tarmac, limiting overbooking, getting airports ready for the next big travel rush, all with so-called increased government oversight — it does little to quell the worries of passengers who just want normalcy from the airlines they frequent.

To them, it seems like it’s always something, whether it’s inclement weather or extreme climate events that will only get worse, IT systems going dark, planes requiring unscheduled maintenance … the list goes on and on.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas at [email protected]. Or contact tonight’s author at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

— Fed hikes rates again even as inflation cools: The Federal Reserve today raised interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point, bringing policymakers another step closer to an expected pause in their inflation fight sometime this year. For now, the central bank’s rate-setting committee signaled that borrowing costs will increase further, saying rate hikes will be “ongoing.” But today’s move is the smallest hike since last March, a reflection of the fact that price spikes have been cooling for months.

— Biden and McCarthy hold White House meeting on debt ceiling: President Joe Biden met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy today in search of a path to lifting the nation’s debt ceiling — and averting the potential for an economic catastrophe. They emerged from the hourlong session agreed on at least one thing: It could’ve gone worse. “The president and I had a first good meeting — I shared my perspective with him, he shared his,” McCarthy told reporters afterward. “No agreements, no promises, except that we would continue this conversation.”

— FBI searches ​​Biden’s beach home in Delaware: Federal investigators conducted a search today of Biden’s vacation home in Rehoboth, Del., as part of their ongoing probe into his handling of classified documents, officials said. Bob Bauer, Biden’s personal lawyer, said in a statement that the president’s team did not seek to provide advance notice of the operation. But he confirmed the search by the Department of Justice was taking place after it was reported by CBS News, which, along with other television outlets stationed outside of the president’s home, observed black vehicles arriving outside mid-morning.

— Mark Zuckerberg beats back FTC antitrust challenge: Meta notched early court approval of its bid to purchase Within Unlimited, maker of the virtual reality fitness app Supernatural, a critical blow to the Federal Trade Commission’s efforts to fight against consolidation in the tech sector. In a pair of sealed rulings, U.S. District Judge Edward Davila declined to issue a preliminary injunction against the deal while the FTC pursues a separate case in its in-house administrative court, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

Feds probing Santos’ role in service dog charity scheme: FBI agents are investigating Rep. George Santos’ (R-N.Y.) role in an alleged GoFundMe scheme involving a disabled U.S. Navy veteran’s dying service dog. Two agents contacted former service member Richard Osthoff today on behalf of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York. Osthoff gave the agents 2016 text messages with Santos, who he says used his plight to raise $3,000 for life-saving surgery for the pit bull mix, Sapphire – then ghosted with the funds. The alleged fundraising scheme is one of many scandals plaguing the freshman Republican.

EU SPLIT ON UKRAINE — Brussels is expected to pour cold water on Ukraine’s hopes that it could swiftly join the EU during a two-day summit in Kyiv, according to a draft statement from top EU leaders, writes Barbara Moens and Suzanne Lynch.

The statement makes no specific mention of the ambitious timeline Ukraine has set out, with the country’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, even telling POLITICO this week that he hopes to join within two years. Instead, the document offers only vague assurances about moving the process forward once all EU-mandated milestones are met.

“The EU will decide on further steps once all conditions specified in the Commission’s opinion are fully met,” the draft states. “Ukraine underlined its determination to meet the necessary requirements in order to start accession negotiations as soon as possible.”

The document also stresses the need for “comprehensive and consistent implementation of judicial reforms” in line with the Venice Commission’s advice, citing, in particular, the need to reform Ukraine’s Constitutional Court.

The wording follows significant pushback from some EU countries about over-promising Ukraine on its EU membership prospects, a subject Kyiv asked to address at the summit, according to several EU diplomats and officials.

EU leaders last June granted Ukraine formal candidate status in record time, but remain split over how quickly the bloc should try to move Ukraine through the EU accession process, which typically involves grueling negotiations that can take several years.

TREACHEROUS ALTITUDES — Almost 50 years ago, Nanda Devi Unsoeld, daughter of alpinist Willi Unsoeld, died hiking the Indian peak Nanda Devi, for which she was named. Nanda Devi Unsoeld was 22-years-old when she and her father set off on the expedition in 1976; her death was a result of blood clotting caused by high altitude. (Her father passed away three years later during an avalanche on Mount Rainier). Hikers who survived the dangerous and controversial climb that killed the younger Unsoeld on Nanda Devi explain how things went awry, and who Nanda Devi Unsoeld really was. Svati Kirsten Narula reports on the “Himalayan tragedy that forever changed mountaineering” in Outside Magazine.

DON’T BLOW IT — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s defection from the Democratic Party should present a golden opportunity for the GOP. But two high-profile 2022 election losers in Arizona are eyeing Senate bids in 2024, sparking angst among Republicans that they will blow an increasingly winnable race, write Holly Otterbein, Burgess Everett and Ally Mutnick.

Republican Blake Masters, who lost a Senate bid last year by 5 percentage points, is talking to consultants and making calls about another potential run. Some Arizona GOP strategists are treating it as a foregone conclusion that he’ll jump in, although a person familiar with his moves said he is truly undecided at this point and just testing the waters.

Kari Lake, the unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial nominee, is also considering a Senate campaign. But any decision is expected to come after her legal challenge to the 2022 election results is completed, according to a person close to her.

The possibility of Lake and Masters entering the political waters once more is complicating the newfound optimism GOP officials felt about capitalizing on Sinema’s recent party switch to independent. With Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) already in the race, Republicans see a prime opportunity to win a three-way election with a plurality of the vote.

Now there are fears of fumbling the opportunity by putting forth a failed candidate who remains aligned with former President Donald Trump or fixated on election denialism.

“Any candidate in ’24 that has, as their principal campaign theme, a stolen election, is probably going to have the same issues that some of the ’22 candidates had,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the Senate GOP’s No. 2 leader.

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