Norman Mineta departure saddens bizav

 - September 14, 2006, 6:40 AM

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, a long-time advocate for general aviation and the lone Democrat in President Bush’s Cabinet, shocked and saddened the transportation industry when he announced his resignation June 20. He oversaw the DOT’s response to the 9/11 attacks, and his 5.5-year tenure was the longest in the history of the agency.

The 74-year-old former Congressman, who also served as Commerce Department secretary under President Clinton, is joining the New York public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton as vice chairman.

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen recalled how Mineta’s understanding of the general aviation sector helped guide the passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA), which was fundamental to the future of general aviation. When GARA was working its way through Congress, Bolen was an aide to then Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.).

After Mineta retired from Congress in 1995 to join Lockheed Martin as a vice president, he was chosen to chair the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, which soon became known colloquially as the Mineta Commission. Among its recommendations was that general aviation should not be burdened with user fees, but should instead contribute to the Airport and Airways Trust Fund through fuel taxes.

“The nation owes Secretary Mineta a debt of gratitude for his tremendous service in support of all of the nation’s transportation segments, especially aviation,” Bolen said. “For decades, the secretary has proved himself an outstanding public servant and a critical figure in shaping aviation policy in the U.S. and around the world.”

In his letter of resignation to President Bush, Mineta said it was time to move on to other challenges. “Coming to this conclusion has been very difficult, but I am submitting my resignation to you effective July 7, 2006,” Mineta wrote.

Noting that his public-service career was in its fourth decade, the former Congressman said he feels passionate about transportation. “You crossed party lines and gave me the high honor to serve you as the Cabinet secretary charged with implementing national policies in this area,” he wrote to Bush. “Working with you has been particularly rewarding and most gratifying, especially since I have been able to do so with your full support and confidence.”

A Distinguished Record in General Aviation
General aviation leaders praised Mineta for his service to aviation and the nation and wished him well in future endeavors.

National Air Transportation Association president Jim Coyne said he was “deeply saddened” when he learned of Mineta’s resignation. “Working with leaders in both political parties, Secretary Mineta successfully made transportation policy a top priority in Congress among both Republicans and Democrats,” said Coyne.

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) said that “throughout his long and distinguished career of service” Mineta has “shown his love for and understanding of all modes of transportation and, in particular, the unique role the aviation industry plays in a highly mobile U.S. society.

“Secretary Mineta has consistently acknowledged the powerful contribution general aviation makes to our nation’s economy and dedicated his efforts toward ensuring its continued vitality,” GAMA said. “All of aviation, especially the general aviation manufacturing industry, has benefited from his constant emphasis on improving the safety and reliability of our national transportation system.”

GAMA called GARA “a shining example” of Mineta’s contribution to helping an industry recover.

AOPA president Phil Boyer said that during his 16 years as head of that association, Mineta always had an open door. “Whether it was during his tenure as a U.S. representative for California’s San Jose area, the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee and the House Public Works and Transportation Committee or as secretary of transportation, he always welcomed and valued what we had to say regarding GA,” Boyer said, adding that it is critical that the Bush Administration choose a successor who has the same level of understanding of the value of general aviation as Mineta displayed.

As soon as Mineta’s resignation was made public, speculation began as to who would be named as his successor for the remainder of the Bush presidency. One possible candidate is FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, whose tenure as head of the FAA expires in September next year.

Blakey called Mineta an icon in the field of aviation. “As mayor, congressman, chairman of the Mineta Commission and secretary, his work made terrific contributions to reducing congestion and to the safest period in aviation history,” she said.

Other possible successors are said to include Michael Jackson, Mineta’s former deputy; Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who served as deputy Transportation Secretary under Bush’s father; and Maria Cino, who was Mineta’s deputy and is now acting secretary.

Mineta also received accolades from former colleagues. “Last year, with the secretary’s assistance, we passed the largest highway and transit legislation in history–legislation that will play a vital role in improving America’s surface transportation system,” said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “And two years ago we passed the largest airport improvement bill in history.”

Leading Security Changes
But many people, including Young, emphasized that Mineta will also be remembered for his actions in the aftermath of 9/11. “History will show that, beginning with his decisive actions during the first moments of the September 11 terrorist attacks, through the development of more comprehensive aviation and port security systems, Norm Mineta has helped reshape our nation in the war against terrorism,” the congressman declared.

Bolen said Mineta’s decisiveness, leadership and wisdom were never more in evidence than in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when he ordered the successful grounding of all aircraft, then worked through the weeks following for the safe resumption of flight.

“Norm Mineta leaves behind a proud legacy of accomplishment for America’s transportation system, which–as he well recognized–is a critical component in the nation’s economy,” he said.

In his resignation letter, Mineta told Bush that he was proud of the work that all of his Department of Transportation “colleagues” did in the wake of the attacks. “From the earliest moments of that horrible day and for weeks and months after, the personnel of the department performed quickly, courageously and effectively,” he wrote. “From bringing thousands of civilian flights to safe landings in a few hours, to designing, creating and staffing the Transportation Security Administration in less than a year, the people in the DOT served our nation and your administration very well.”