Editors' Choice: DOT Secretary Norman Mineta

 - May 28, 2008, 7:22 AM

Unlike a lot of political appointees, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta came into the Bush Administration well versed in transportation issues–particularly aviation. His bona fides included time on Capitol Hill as a congressman, a stint with Lockheed Martin and, on a more parochial level, a term as mayor of San Jose, Calif. He also served briefly as President Clinton’s Commerce Secretary and while at  Lockheed he chaired the National Civil Aviation Review Commission.

Mineta’s interest in aviation goes back to his youth, and his selection as DOT secretary immediately won kudos from the general aviation industry. He once held a private pilot license, he has two sons who are commercial pilots, and he is married to a former flight attendant. Attesting to his popularity and the esteem to which he is held, his appointment as transportation secretary was unanimously approved by the Senate midway through his confirmation hearing on January 24.

While Mineta’s short, first stint as a Cabinet secretary was low-key and uneventful, his first year in the Bush White House has been anything but. He was no sooner sworn-in than it was learned that the Bush Administration was proposing to reduce the FAA’s funding for fiscal year 2002 by upwards of $500 million, a move that was actually a leftover from the Clinton Administration.

After successfully getting that money restored, he tackled mounting ATC delays, and in the process set off a mini-flap with an off-hand suggestion that some aircraft should be allowed to take off when storms are forecast along the route. “We are backing up the system,” he told Congress in March. “I wonder whether we didn’t get too cautious, too conservative.”   

One solution to aviation delays–which Mineta began touting at his confirmation hearing and continued to hammer away at–was building more runways. He vowed to shorten the time that it takes to get new runways built and to be personally involved with hiring a COO to run the new air traffic organization. Meanwhile, he was on Capitol Hill testifying about DOT’s budgetary needs for fiscal 2002, as well as dealing with the other transportation modes that fall under the department’s aegis, including the Coast Guard.

But it was his familiarity with aviation from the ground up that undoubtedly helped business aviation get back in the air expeditiously after September 11, even though he later admitted that the final decisions were made by national security advisors. On September 14, three days after the terrorist attacks, Mineta announced that “general aviation–that important segment of aviation consisting of privately owned and operated aircraft–will be allowed to resume flights” under IFR.