EDITORIAL: Buttigieg Will Need To Show Quick Learning Of The Air Transport Industry
The Dec. 15 news that US President-elect Joe Biden will nominate former election rival Pete Buttigieg to be US Transportation Secretary will likely be met with a slightly quizzical “interesting” by those in Washington DC aviation circles.
Buttigieg dropped out of the Democratic Party presidential race to endorse Biden ahead of the all-important Super Tuesday primaries in March, so he was always on the list of potential cabinet nominees. If confirmed, he will replace Elaine Chao, who has been one of the few Trump Administration appointees to survive his full term and who is married to US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), a staunch Trump ally.
Chao has led the US Transportation Department (DOT) with a light regulatory hand. She came into office with a wealth of experience, having held several DOT positions during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies—including Deputy Secretary from 1989-91—and as Labor Secretary during George W. Bush’s tenure.
By contrast, Buttigieg, who turns 39 in January, would take on the DOT role as one of its youngest leaders and with no cabinet or government office experience beyond being mayor of South Bend, Indiana, where he grew up.
A former US Navy officer who served a tour in Afghanistan, he will undoubtedly apply energy and military-acquired logistics expertise to the DOT Secretary role. But his understanding of the infrastructure challenges of aging American roads, bridges and railways will probably come quicker than comprehending the needs and nuances of the US air transport system.
It would be easy, for example, for an outsider to dismiss the very real and continuing needs of the US air traffic management (ATM) infrastructure, believing that the temporary slump in demand for air travel brought on by the pandemic means that ATM reform is a “tomorrow problem.” That would be a serious mistake. US ATM reform is still long overdue and the unforeseen gap in air traffic probably provides the best opportunity America will ever have to address its chronic long-term air traffic congestion.
It would also be disappointing if Buttigieg, with his lack of aviation experience but loyalty to Biden, looks to guidance from the Obama-Biden days when Anthony Foxx was DOT Secretary. Under Foxx, all sorts of so-called consumer rules were scattered towards airlines, including legislation on how they could charge for bags, that were classic in their lack of industry understanding and more costly to regulate than the assumed wrongs they sought to right. Chao, to her credit, unwound such rules, actively directing agency personnel to throw out any rule that did not provide benefits greater than their cost. Buttigieg would do well to continue that thinking.
But most of all, despite all the many challenges that the US faces in 2021 and beyond because of pandemic and economic crises, Buttigieg needs to quickly demonstrate that he understands the unique catastrophic effect that US airlines are enduring. With a light but supportive approach, the next DOT Secretary could help lift airlines back to financial strength, which in turn will help recharge the US economy. That is how he can best support the agenda of the 46th US President.