An Interview with DOT Secretary Mineta

Air Line Pilot, October 2001, p. 10
By Chris Dodd, Staff Writer

When the Washington, D.C. press corps reported on President George W. Bush’s pick as Secretary of Transportation, their assessment was swift–and glowing: ABC News, for example, declared: "It would be hard to find a more qualified candidate than Norm Mineta."—or one who enjoyed more bipartisan support.

Norman Y. Mineta, a Democrat, had been Commerce Secretary in the Clinton Administration. He moved to that post after a distinguished career in the House of Representatives, where he chaired the House Public Works and Transportation Committee (now the Transportation Committee) and served as chairman of its aviation subcommittee. While a vice-president at Lockheed-Martin, he chaired the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, the group the Clinton Administration tasked with finding ways to reduce air traffic congestion and cut the U.S. airline accident rate. He was also mayor of and city councilman in San Jose, Calif., which announced this summer it would rename the local airport in his honor.

Air Line Pilot interviewed Secretary Mineta in early August at the Department of Transportation offices in Washington, D.C.

Air Line Pilot: You’re no stranger to the ways of Washington. What did your perspective as a long-time member of Congress teach you about the ways the federal government—and the airline industry—work?

Secretary Mineta: The background was important, because, in the final analysis, no matter how or what your views are on the subject matter, consensus determines what gets done. You have a Senate bill, you have a House bill. But it’s really decided in conference, which is nothing more than building consensus on what you can agree on.

Because I’ve had the advantage of 21 years in Congress, had the privilege of chairing what was then called the Public Works and Transportation Committee, I think I’m seeing the process from both sides—as a "grunt" and as a person who had the responsibility of chairing a major committee that had to get legislation through the maze.

What do you consider to be your strengths?

I consider myself a good listener. Once you’ve heard all the points of view on a given issue, you come out doing this, or, if that’s not going to work, trying that. On any given issue, you always have advocates who are going to be pulling you in opposite directions. After listening to people and getting good counsel, you have to chart a course.

One of the things I don’t want to do is to let things sit. To me, time is not a good way to solve issues. Rulemakings here at the Department of Transportation have taken a long time. I’m still dealing with rules right now from T-21 (in 1998). That is bad. A large number of issues were dealt with in AIR-21, and we haven’t seen rules yet coming out on that one. I want to try to get these things out in a shorter time period than we have experienced in the past.

What did your background at Lockheed-Martin bring to your present job? Do you see it as having an influence?

Not so much in terms of the substance of an issue, but having run a company, I’ve had to look at things from an executive’s perspective, to look at things from the private sector perspective, and that, I think, has been very helpful.

When you are in Congress, you are just passing laws. And one of the things about that is, if you have never been at the other end of the legislative pipeline, trying to make something work, you really have no appreciation for it. I experienced this as mayor, too, when I was trying to make programs work at the local level. My time at Lockheed gave me a much better appreciation of how, especially here, in a departmental role, our rules and regulations affect how something gets done.

We have to have good laws, and once those laws are passed, we have to match them up with the necessary rules and regulations.

Did the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, which you chaired, correctly predict the gridlock we experienced last summer?

We did. We just didn’t expect it that soon. In 1997, we said to expect it by early in the turn of the century, and by April 2000 we had gridlock.

My wife, Dani, was a flight attendant for United for 35 years. She retired in May, and that month, the whole system came to a screeching halt—delays, cancellations, everything. People would call her up and say, "Dani, your timing in retiring was impeccable!"

And now you’re in charge of fixing the system, at a time when delays and congestion are at an all-time high. Why did you take the job?

First of all, there is no better job, in my estimation, than being Secretary of Transportation.

I had turned it down in 1992. With the new Administration coming in, President Clinton had asked me to take the job in November 1992. I had said "no," because I was about to become chair of the Public Works and Transportation Committee. When you’ve spent that much time in Congress and you’re about to become chair of the Committee you’ve been working on all that time, it’s difficult to pass up.

I said to the President, "I think that I could serve better as a member of Congress than being secretary, because I would be chairing a major committee."

I was still interested in other issues—science and technology, Asian–Pacific American issues, civil rights in general—and I felt that as a member of Congress, chair of a major committee, I would be a little more free to speak out and move about the country than I would serving as secretary.

So on Dec. 29, 2000, when Dick Cheney called and said, "Norm, we’ve decided that we want you to be part of our team and we want you to come on board as Secretary of Transportation," it was an
opportunity I couldn’t pass up. To me, there’s no greater job. I don’t think of transportation as a public works project. To me, it’s the driver of our economy. Nothing happens in the economy unless transportation is O.K.

So whether it’s commuting, just-in-time delivery, air traffic control, safety —all of these issues are part of the economy. Not moving people and goods safely and efficiently has an economic cost. So it’s important that transportation be an integral part of whatever gets done. And that’s what interested me in the subject.

When I first came on the city council in San Jose in 1967, I could see that. The general phrase then was "infrastructure." When I was growing up, San Jose was about 85,000–90,000 population. In the one term I was mayor, we went from 358,000, as I recall, to 580,000 in four years.

So that meant we had to have the infrastructure in the community—sewer systems, roads, police, fire, parks and playgrounds, libraries. The city has to be able to grow gracefully. I was dealing with 26 separate school districts—elementary school, high school, some serving both, one for the community college. I felt that my job as mayor was to deal with the schools’ infrastructure. That’s when I found out that transportation is really important.

How far along do you feel we are in dealing with the congestion in the air transportation system?

When you look at the last several years, the year 2000 was probably a benchmark. In terms of reporting delays, without a doubt, 2000 was the worst, since records have been kept.

The problem is that in aviation, we have air traffic control, airports, and airlines. They are something like a family, but a dysfunctional family, because they often don’t interrelate. The airlines are in the private sector, airports are locally owned, and air traffic control is at the federal level. In many instances they’re just not working with or talking to each other.

It got to the point that in 2000 everybody was pointing to each other, saying, "They’re the problem." [In a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shortly after I took office], I said, "Quit pointing your fingers at each other, and let’s sit down and get working on this whole issue."

And has progress been made?

Well, I think the FAA started doing that when it set up the FAA Air Traffic Control System Command Center out in Herndon, Va., in 1996 and did some flow control work [see "Managing the Flow," May 1996]. But by 2000, we had a record year for numbers of passengers and operations. The system couldn’t handle it. By the same token, establishing the Command Center helped, because they saw where the problems were. Not only was the FAA sitting there, the airlines were also sitting with the air traffic controllers. And since then, they’ve refined what we know as CDM—collaborative decision-making.

In the first six months of 2001, the number of delays, cancellations, and re-routings have all gone down. Admittedly, some of that was due to better weather, but I think the ATC system has done very well.

Part of it, too, is that it took us—what, three years??—to come to a definition of what constitutes a delay. Because no one wants to be responsible, or accountable, for causing a delay, various parties would say, "No, no, no, that should not go in. We don’t include that in what constitutes a delay."

So whether you were the Air Transport Association or ATC, you were very careful, very sensitive about how delays got defined. And in three years, what did they finally decide on? That a delay was 15 minutes after the scheduled departure time. It took three years to get there!

At any rate, what we have going on now is better. With the new Operational Evolutionary Plan (see "NAS Modernization: An Update," June/July and August), we have laid out for the next 10 years what we are going to do. Every "stakeholder"—ATC, airlines, pilots, controllers, and airports—has a part in putting this operational plan together. I’m excited about what I would like to consider a transition which grew, in part, from our work on the NCARC.

We brought a great deal of focus to what was happening in aviation through the NCARC. And this, everyone says, has become the blueprint of what was to happen in the future. Now that I’m here, the FAA and the DOT are using the NCARC report as the blueprint for what has to be done. Elements of AIR-21 emanated from our NCARC report. So I think it’s had a wide-ranging and deep effect on what’s happening.

What specific recommendations that came out of that report would you like to see brought forward?

Well, our departmental mandate is safety. One of the concerns that we had in NCARC was that the airline accident rate had not changed in 30 years. So as we looked at the future, and at the number of operations increasing, and we saw the number of passengers increasing, we said, "If we apply this rate to this increase in operations, by 2010, we’ll have 7–8 major accidents in the United States every year, and one a week somewhere in the world."

So our commitment in the NCARC was to reduce this airline accident rate by 80 percent.

I’ve asked the FAA what it is doing to make sure that we’re on schedule. It has a regular program, with benchmarks, on what it plans to do to make sure we get an 80 percent reduction.

So far, I think we’re on schedule, because we met our goals both in terms of airlines as well as GA. I think right now, knock on wood, we’re on schedule.

This is where something does not happen unless we have the cooperation of airlines, and the professionals—the pilots. You’ve seen the controversy in terms of LAHSO, for example. The pilots have been advocates of certain safety equipment such as GPWS devices, or on certain issues, such as CFIT. These are issues and types of equipment that pilots have been talking about for years. So we know that to achieve this goal, airlines, ATC, airports, and pilots are all part of it.

Is the signage at an airport safe? The whole issue of design and signage has become very important. To get to an 80 percent reduction in the U.S. airline accident rate, everybody has to be part of the solution. Whether it’s airlines acceding to putting in enhanced GPWS equipment or determining how we train pilots better This is something we’re working on in a day-to-day, one-stone-at-a-time kind of fashion. Nothing dramatic, but it means doing some things that have to be done.

Does the DOT have a plan to coordinate at the highest levels to make sure that we really are moving forward in the most efficient manner?

With things like safety, I believe in a "top down" approach.

On the other hand, with something like, "Where’s the new airport gonna go?" or "Are we going to build additional runways at a given airport?" it’s "bottoms up," because if the local community doesn’t want it, no amount of "Now hear this! Now hear this!" from the federal level is going to make a local community say, "The FAA says we ought to build a new airport. Let’s do it!"

A runway construction issue, no matter what it is, means two years of construction and seven to eight years of process. From the time you apply, you have local people saying, "No, we don’t want this—not in my back yard"; environmental lawsuits; environmental impact statements (EIS); environmental impact reports (EIR); going out to bid; and design. By the time you get to construction, no matter the size of the project—big or small—it’s pretty much set. A runway construction is going to take two years, an airport, five or six years. But added on to that is process.

What we’re trying to do right now to help on that is to streamline the process.

Before, you would complete the EIS (a state document), then you would prepare the EIR (a federal document), then you would go through engineering and plans, and you would finally get out here to construction. What I’m doing now is saying, "Look, let’s prepare the EIS and the EIR together, so that we’ve shortened this process."

In the past, when the local FAA office got the application, it would set up a team to look at it. Once they did their work on it, and the EIS was completed, they put it in a nice package, put a big bow on it, and sent it to Washington, D.C. And then we would set up a national FAA team to take a look at this application and then send it through the process to construction.

Today what I’m doing is when the local sets up the FAA team, I’m setting up a federal team to work with them, right then and there, so that it becomes not a sequential process but one in which everything is done concurrently.

Our back-of-the-envelope calculation is that we can cut a minimum of one year off the process doing this kind of thing. So when you have a seven-year process and you’ve knocked off one year, that’s close to 15 percent of your time period.

Can you give an example of where that’s being done now? Can you give our readers some good news?

When I was Secretary of Commerce, I was watching the San Francisco International Airport situation. When San Francisco goes IFR it has only one runway for arrivals because the separation from the parallel runway is too small. So they’re thinking of building out there in the water. There’s just a natural resistance to that. Besides that, the San Francisco area has what is known as the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

At that time, I said to an official out at San Francisco Airport, "You’re going to have to deal with some real environmental issues. At the Department of Commerce, I’ve got the National Marine Fisheries Service and I’ve got Coastal Zone Management. And they’re both going to be involved in the expansion at your airport. Why don’t you guys sign an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with us, and we will help you shorten this timeline?"

Now that I’m here at the DOT, I’m looking at other ways to try to deal with these issues—not an end run around environmental law, but trying to stay within the confines of what the requirements of environmental law are and trying to deal with the process part of it. Just in terms of the EIS/EIR, local and federal team-building, we think we’ve already cut a year out of this process.

Remember Denver Stapleton? When it went IFR, it had only one runway, too. With traffic coming from the West Coast, from the East Coast, it got all screwed up. But going from Stapleton to Denver International has eliminated all that stuff. Now we have six runways. When Denver International opened in December 1995, we had six runways operating in the snow.

When I was in Congress as chair of the Public Works Committee, I had more complaints about Denver Stapleton than any other airport. The minute the new airport opened, we didn’t have those complaints.

As in Denver, where traffic had been fouled up east and west, San Francisco was even worse, because it not only gets inbound traffic from the Pacific and from the East Coast, but it also gets north- and southbound traffic—LAX, San Diego, Seattle, Portland. All of these were affected when San Francisco would go IFR.

We have to deal with SFO, we have to deal with ORD, we have to deal with LGA. We know that the United States has 31 benchmark airports, but we don’t have to deal with all 31. I think the FAA has decided that it is going to deal with eight—we don’t have the money to deal with all 31. Let’s concentrate on these eight, and do something to relieve the congestion and delay problems. All the airplanes can’t leave at 5:10, and all the airplanes can’t arrive at 8:30. And yet, if you look at the OAG, you wonder, How does Boston handle eight airplanes departing at 5:10 p.m.?

After the benchmarking study, some people had suggested that "demand management"—for example, providing financial incentives for carriers to schedule at other than those peak times—might be a way to reduce some of the congestion. But you were quoted as saying that you do not favor that kind of approach. Why not?

Part of the problem to the "demand management" approach is that they’re trying to curtail the supply side of the equation. You have demand (i.e., users of the system), and you have supply.

To the extent that those two sides don’t match up, that equals congestion. Many people seemed to be saying, "Let’s stop building new airports. Let’s just have fewer flights." To me, again, that is simply an issue of service. Is an airport going to have eight flights a day to a particular destination, or is it going to have only two? If it has only two, what happens to fares? We’ve seen situations in which airports have three carriers or one dominant carrier, and invariably, the fares are going to be a lot higher at the former than the latter. That’s what AirTran is complaining about right now, and Sun Country.

One of the biggest advantages we got out of deregulation, I’d like to think, is the nature of the hub-and-spoke system. But then you have others who are not in favor of it.

Hub-and-spoke is great if you’re a large airline and you have lots of money to be able to develop such a system. Most of the new-entrants are all point-to-point flyers. You can take any of the large airlines—it will have an airplane come in, sit overnight, and fly out the next morning. Southwest has, what is it, a 20-minute turnaround?

You talk about utilization of aircraft. Southwest flies in, gets on the ground. The pilots get in and help clean out the airplane. These people are point-to-point flyers; they operate differently from the large airlines, which are all hub-and-spoke. But it also, I think, affects the fares at particular airports.

I’m trying not to curtail supply; I’m trying to make sure that we have enough runways, that we have enough airports, that we have sufficient ATC capacity.

The other thing, too, is ATC itself, and how smart can we get about handling air traffic? We can do this with technology. The overlying thing is really more a systems approach.

One of the concepts that came out of the NCARC was free flight. John O’Brien (ALPA’s director of Engineering and Air Safety) has just been terrific on this thing. He was the one who educated all of us on the NCARC about not doing things the same old ordinary way—"thinking outside the box"—that was one of John’s favorite expressions.

Just the other day, I went over to the Free Flight office to get a briefing on how they’re doing on Free Flight Phase I and deployment, and now Charlie Keegan, who was head of Phase I, has been moved over to head up the effort on Phase II. To me, that’s an exciting event in terms of watching something come out of the NCARC.

Once again, it starts with ALPA, its safety committees, and what they’ve been working with down through the years. The NCARC gave them a forum so we could really talk about free flight. To me, those things are exciting.

What are your thoughts on industry consolidation? Last week we learned that the United–US Airways deal was not going forward. In your view, are future mergers of U.S. airlines possible, or desirable?

I think the whole idea of mergers is still on the table. I haven’t really studied this in depth, but it just seems to me that that particular merger, as I recall, would have given the merged carriers something like a 28 percent market share. When American and TWA came along, it was going to give them market share at about 26 percent. Here’s Delta sitting at, say, 17, and Northwest with 11, Continental out there with maybe at about 9. On the other hand, United by itself has about 19.

Without the United/US Airways deal happening, one outfit (the combined American/TWA) is still out there with 26 percent. These others can’t afford to have American sitting out there with 26 percent. To me, someone is probably out there "dating" still. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think some kind of hand-holding is still going on out there. The question is whether it leads to a marriage!

This is one industry in which in more ways, big is not [necessarily] better, but it is cost-effective. Just look at it in terms of jet fuel. Only Delta, United, and American Airlines hedged on jet fuel prices, and they bought long-term contracts two years ago. So that as jet fuel prices skyrocketed, because they had banked their contracts, they weren’t affected as profoundly as other, smaller carriers. This is one area in which big is desirable in terms of cost-effectiveness.

Do you have any observations to share on international alliances, which have taken global aviation in a whole new direction?

We have long viewed intercarrier alliances, as well as other forms of cooperative marketing arrangements between and among airlines, as an important element of our international aviation policy, and that certainly remains true today. I should add that it also remains our policy that an Open Skies agreement with the homeland of each alliance partner is a necessary (but not by itself sufficient) prerequisite to the grant of antitrust immunity to an alliance.

While we recognize the benefits that cooperative marketing arrangements can bring to the public, safety remains our top priority. A clear demonstration of our commitment to safety can be seen in recent events surrounding code-sharing by airlines of the Republic of Korea. During August, the FAA placed Korea in what is known as "Category 2" under its International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) Program, which the FAA created to verify whether foreign governments are in fact meeting their international safety responsibilities as to their airlines that serve or that seek to serve the United States. The FAA, after it completes a safety assessment, places foreign governments in either one of two categories: Category 1: complies with international standards, or Category 2: does not comply with international standards.

In Category 2 situations such as now exists with Korea, foreign airlines of the country involved may continue their existing operations, based on the FAA’s providing heightened oversight of those operations in the United States. However, while existing operations can continue, the foreign airlines will not be permitted to expand their operations to the United States.

With regard to U.S. airlines code-sharing with foreign airlines, our IASA program results feed into another significant Department program, the Code-Share Safety Program Guidelines, issued in February 2000. In code-share situations in which passengers holding a U.S. airline ticket are actually flying on a foreign airline, we believe that requiring notice to passengers of code-share operations is not enough; additional safety-related measures are needed. Thus, our guidelines look to U.S. airlines to audit their foreign code-share partners pursuant to FAA-accepted audit programs.

In addition, we do not approve U.S. carrier code shares with foreign carriers that are not in Category 1.

As to the specific relations between U.S. and Korean airlines, Delta Air Lines, based on its own evaluation of Korean Air Lines, elected to stop placing its code on KAL operations. Delta took this step well before the FAA’s recently announced downgrade of Korea to Category 2.

American Airlines, the only U.S. airline placing its code on a Korean airline passenger service at the time of the FAA’s downgrading of Korea to Category 2, voluntarily elected to remove its codes from the flights of its Korean code-share partner, Asiana Airlines, immediately upon the FAA’s downgrade announcement. We view American’s decision in this matter as being consistent with and supported by the Code-Share Safety Program Guidelines.

What can our pilots do to help you carry out your tasks?

As I said earlier, reducing the fatal airline accident rate by 80 percent means that everybody has to be part of the solution, and that’s where I need your help the most. Through the FAA’s Safer Skies program and many other cooperative efforts, we have worked with the pilots and other members of the aviation community to improve safety. Reducing runway incursions continues to be one of our biggest challenges and is going to require even more sustained attention from everyone involved. We are working with our air traffic controllers to improve awareness and training, and our goal is to absolutely eliminate operational errors. We are also installing new technology to help us prevent runway accidents.

But we know we can’t do it without your help. Pilots are the professionals who are the closest to this issue. You know the stakes are high, and you understand the individual airports. You can help us find the root causes, so we can better direct solutions at the local level.

And you can focus on your own best practices, as we’re doing with our controllers, to raise the safety bar as high as it can get. All of us need to constantly ask ourselves how we can do it better. Aviation safety has no end game and never will have. I know that your commitment and professionalism will help us turn around the numbers on runway safety.