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International Air Transport Association (IATA) Legal Symposium

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Remarks As Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
International Air Transport Association (IATA) Legal Symposium
New York City, NY
Thursday, February 20, 2020

Thanks for the opportunity to be here today. As you have heard, this is my third time back at the U.S. Department of Transportation.  When I was deputy secretary of Transportation, I served with Jeff Shane when he was Assistant Secretary of Policy.  Jeff is widely known for his expertise and experience in the aviation sector.  He helped establish the Department’s approach to international aviation alliances and antitrust issues.  He was an early champion of updating the U.S. air traffic control system, acceleration of GPS modernization and other tech initiatives.

So today, as we enter a new era of aviation innovation, I’m delighted to be here with you today to share some thoughts about what the U. S. Department of Transportation is doing on some important issues impacting airline passengers.

But before I do, I want to mention two things I am sure are on everyone’s mind here today. 

(Novel Coronoavirus – Covoid-19)

First, I want to recognize the aviation community for your collaboration in facing the challenges presented by outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, or as it is officially known, Covid-19.  U.S. and international carriers are helping government authorities address this public health emergency, and we thank you for everything you’re doing.

(Boeing 737 Max)

The international aviation community has also provided remarkable help in addressing another important aviation concern: the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.  The FAA is following a deliberate, thorough process for evaluating the safety of the aircraft and the proposed fixes.  The FAA will lift its grounding order only when it is determined safe to do so.  And we will continue to keep the international aviation community informed during the entire process.

(Service Animals)

The next issue is a bit more confined to U.S. aviation – bringing service animals on board aircraft.  Concerns have been raised by carriers and passengers about the application of the Department’s existing rules requiring the accommodation of different types of service animals in the air cabin.  As a result, we have proposed a significant revision to these rules.   

On January 22, 2020, the Department issued a substantial notice of proposed rulemaking.  Our proposal would amend the definition of a service animal for purposes of air transportation to harmonize it with the rules applied to other industries by the Department of Justice under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Under this definition, the only service animals that airlines would be required to accommodate would be dogs that are individually trained to assist the passenger with a physical or mental disability.  Like the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation would no longer require airlines to accommodate emotional support animals or any species of animal other than individually trained service dogs.  Psychiatric service dogs would be treated the same as traditional service dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind.

The notice of proposed rulemaking also includes safeguards to ensure the safety of all passengers and to reduce the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets on aircraft could falsely claim that their pets are service animals.

People who abuse the system by falsely identifying their pets as service animals diminish the benefits of our disabilities access law for all passengers and for the entire aviation system.

The proposal leaves open the possibility that we will make additional reforms in the final rule.  The comment period on this rulemaking closes on April 6, 2020, and the Department encourages IATA and all interested parties to participate in the comment process.  Your input will help ensure this rulemaking is transparent, fair, and protects the rights of people with disabilities, while ensuring the safety of everyone who travels by air.

(Tarmac Delay)

Your input will be equally valuable on another subject that we know is of keen interest to passengers as well as IATA and its members.  This is the Department’s notice of proposed rulemaking concerning tarmac delays.  IATA, A4A, and various other airline representatives have urged the Department to undertake changes to its tarmac delay rules to make sure they reflect practical realities facing airlines and do not result in cancellations that often affect passengers more than the underlying delay.  Congress has also made changes in law that require clarifications in our rules.

In October of last year, the Department published its proposal, which considers changes to how departure delays are calculated, enhances flexibility for airlines, and should help alleviate concerns about the existing rule’s effects on cancellations. 

(Unfair and Deceptive Practices)

Another issue that is of great interest to IATA members is how the Department treats its authority with respect to “unfair and deceptive practices” in the airline industry—an issue you have been tracking closely.  I am pleased to announce that today the Department will be issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking clarifying and codifying the definition of unfair or deceptive practices in air transportation. 

The proposal takes into consideration stakeholder comments.  Many are urging the Department to align its definitions of unfairness and deception with the principles set forth by the Federal Trade Commission (the FTC), and to ensure that our enforcement practices and regulations stay within the scope of the Department’s statutory authority.

Importantly, this proposal would codify the practice of offering airlines and ticket agents the opportunity to be heard and to present relevant evidence before the Department makes a determination regarding a potential unfair or deceptive practice.  The proposal is intended to provide regulated entities and other interested parties greater clarity and certainty about the Department’s interpretation of unfair or deceptive practices in the context of aviation consumer protection rulemaking and enforcement actions. 

(National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force)

Finally, let me speak to another key issue that has garnered a lot of attention, which is the increasing number of incidents of sexual misconduct during airplane flights.  The FBI opened 63 investigations of inflight sexual misconduct in fiscal year 2017.  That number rose to 119 in fiscal year 2019.  To respond to these concerns, I established the National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force one year ago, in February 2019.  Task Force members heard and reviewed first-hand accounts from passengers and flight attendants who experienced in-flight sexual misconduct.  The report of the Task Force will be made public after it is submitted to the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee with recommendations this month.

(Human Trafficking)

I want to pause here to recognize that many important issues are being addressed not just by the government, but by the aviation industry on its own initiative.  IATA’s efforts to combat human trafficking are strong, and include guidance for airlines, classroom and online training for airline staff.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is an ally in this fight against modern day slavery.  It has taken a leadership role in the Administration’s government-wide initiative to combat human trafficking.  Last month, we hosted an event titled “100 Pledges in 100 Days” to secure 100 new signatures on our “Transportation Leaders Against Human Trafficking” pledge.  Under this pledge, companies, State and local government agencies, and other organizations from all transportation modes are committing to educate their workforce and customers to recognize and report suspected instances of human trafficking.  Although we are now less than 30 days into this campaign, we are well on our way toward achieving our goal of getting at least 100 new signed pledges.

(Environmental Aviation Regulation)

The airline industry is also working toward greater energy savings and fewer emissions.  I’d like to commend IATA and the airline industry for your leadership on sustainability and commitment to addressing aircraft engine emissions.  In particular, you have prioritized the role of innovation in achieving sustainability goals, such as investing in new, more fuel-efficient technologies. 

In fact, in the United States, the aviation sector has improved its fuel efficiency more than 70 percent during the last 30 years, and our government applauds these efforts. 

In 2017 the aviation industry carried 4.1 billion passengers and contributed $2.7 trillion to the world economy, supporting directly and indirectly, 65.5 million jobs.   Aviation today has become a ubiquitous form of travel, accessible to nearly everyone. 

The future will bring new questions, new issues, new technologies and certainly, new challenges.  Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we will be discussing a new category of commercial flight: trips to space.  No matter what the venue, or the novelty of the flight experience, the Department’s priority will always remain the same: safety first. 

So, thank you for your continuing support and partnership.  I look forward to working with you to ensure that air travel remains the safest mode of transportation and that the United States continues to lead the way in aviation safety enforcement.

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