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6th Annual Commercial Aviation Industry Summit

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
6th Annual Commercial Aviation Industry Summit
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
The Newseum, Washington, D.C.

Thank you, Nick [Calio] for that warm introduction.  Nick and I worked together when he was Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs.  He’s a great advocate for Airlines for America.

Before I begin, let me assure you that the federal government is on full alert for the hurricanes. I know that many of your companies are working with the FAA to plan for disruptions and safeguard aviation traffic during these storms. Yesterday, cabinet secretaries and agency heads met with FEMA Director Brock Long and DHS Secretary Kirsten Nielsen in the White House situation room to coordinate the federal response in the potentially impacted areas.

It’s worth noting that successful disaster response and recovery is one that’s locally executed, state managed and federally supported.  So FEMA is pre-positioning the federal government’s assets to support each one of those governors who are about to be impacted with achieving their response and recovery goals.  And that’s the way emergency management and disaster response works best.

Today’s event marks a seminal event in commercial aviation: the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978.

It was a true milestone—not only for aviation, but for all transportation.  Airline deregulation democratized air travel for consumers.  It enabled the tremendous growth in air cargo service that is vital to so many industries, especially in the e-commerce era.  So, the ripple effect of this single piece of legislation continues to this day, creating jobs, productivity, opportunity and vitality throughout our economy.   

You’ve already had a full day of panels and discussions examining the state of the industry.  So, this afternoon, let me share with you some thoughts on the opportunities and challenges ahead of us.

As you know, prior to deregulation air travel was reserved for the affluent few.  Today, nearly 90 percent of all Americans will have flown commercially in their lifetimes.  That’s an astonishing statistic, the result of lower fares and greater choice made possible by deregulation. Adjusted for inflation, average domestic airline fares are 42 percent less than in 1980.  Every day, about 27,000 U.S. Airline flights take off and land at 800 airports worldwide, carrying 2.3 million passengers and 55,000 tons of cargo. 

There is a visual reminder of this robust demand on the wall of my office: an electronic map tracking every commercial take-off and landing in the U.S.  It’s a reminder of another aviation milestone: as access and choice have increased, so has safety. Flying is safer than ever before.  In fact, over the past 9 years U.S. commercial aviation experienced the best safety record ever.  That’s because in the United States, we do not compete on safety.  Safety is the shared responsibility of all stakeholders working together to protect the traveling public.  Without increases in safety, commercial airline travel would not be as ubiquitous as it is today. In fact, safety is the foundation of consumer confidence in aviation.  To ensure our country remains a global leader in aviation, we must continue to work together to keep safety Number One.

Another hallmark of aviation today is new technology that has empowered consumers as never before. There is more direct interface between carriers and customers.  Consumers shop online for the best ticket prices.  The days of lost paper tickets received in the mail are gone.  And hopefully, electronic tracking will soon make lost bags a thing of the past, as well.

As air travel touches the lives of nearly every American family, technology has provided new tools for them to share their experiences and offer instantaneous feedback. As Secretary of Transportation, I am not only a regulator but a consumer. I am a frequent flyer on commercial airlines, usually in coach and many times in a middle seat. I’m sure I’m not alone in observing that in today’s crowded skies, civility, respect for others and good manners are more important than ever before. They are essential to keeping everyone on board safe.  The Flight Attendants Association has shared with me their concerns about increased unruliness. 

That’s especially important because the demand for air travel is exploding.  By 2036, the number of air passengers worldwide is projected to double to 7.8 billion annually.  With this growth, comes many challenges.

They include maintaining the Open Skies framework that is the underpinning of our international commercial aviation system.  As you know, the Department is working closely with Great Britain, to help ensure that air travel between our two countries remains smooth and seamless in the post-Brexit era.

In addition, as airline travel grows, so does the demand for modern airport infrastructure.  To meet this need, the Department is investing $3.18 billion in FY 2018 to improve airport infrastructure throughout our country.  In addition, the Department received another $1 billion in the recent supplemental appropriations to invest in airport infrastructure.  And today I am announcing the first major tranche of $586 million dollars in supplemental airport improvement grants.

We are also working with industry stakeholders to address the supply of pilots and skilled aviation technicians.  The Department has launched a program to help interested veterans train to be pilots.  And the Department is holding a summit on the aviation workforce on September 13th.  As a former Secretary of Labor, I an particularly concerned about workforce development and look forward to working with all of you to address this key issue.

And finally, there are exciting new technologies on the horizon that have the potential to transform transportation as we know it today: supersonic flight, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.  In fact, drone technology is the most significant development in aviation since the introduction of the jet engine. The rules and regulations governing our national airspace never anticipated drones.  This technology is developing very rapidly. As of August 17, 2018, there were nearly 1.2 million registered drones in the U.S.-- of which 238,007 were registered for commercial use-- and more than 103,779 certified drone pilots. There must be a path forward for the safe integration of drone if our country is to remain a global aviation leader and reap the safety and economic benefits drones have to offer.

That’s why in May 2018, the Department launched a pilot program to test the safe operation of drones in a variety of conditions that are currently prohibited.  These include operations over people, beyond the line of sight, and at night. The goal is the safe integration of drones into our national airspace. The data gathered from this pilot program will help shape the regulatory framework.  And they will help ensure that the testing and development of this important new technology remains in our country.

Finally, let me note that the Department is monitoring developments in supersonic technology, which has the potential to reduce flight times to distant cities, while keeping airport and high altitude noise within acceptable limits. And the Department is also working with the burgeoning U.S. commercial space industry, to help keep our lead in this critical technology.

I’m sure you all will agree that this is a great time for American aviation. Deregulation paved the way for more consumer access and choice than ever before. At the same time, we have achieved a safety record that is second to none. And the American genius for innovation continues to refresh the industry and create exciting new possibilities for the future.

So, thank you for inviting me to be part of this very special anniversary, and I look forward to working with you to ensure that our country remains a global aviation leader.  

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Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2018
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