US transportation secretary nominee Elaine Chao yesterday sailed through her confirmation hearing before the US Senate, but declined to expand on a proposal to separate air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration, or give greater detail about planned investments in aviation infrastructure.

Elaine Chao - Credit: Wikimedia

Chao, who is seen as a safe pair of hands following her time as labour secretary under George W Bush between 2001 to 2009, said the administration had not yet made a decision whether to detach the US Air Traffic Organization (ATO) from the FAA.

“Obviously, this is an issue of great importance, it’s a huge issue that needs to have a national consensus,” Chao told the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, responsible for reviewing her nomination.

“For that national consensus to occur there needs to be a dialogue. The administration has not made a decision on this point.”

When asked by Senator Bill Nelson of Florida about her position, she held back, saying, “I would like to get confirmed first,” adding that she was “open to all ideas” and ready to work with Congress to reach a solution.

Asked by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey whether President-elect Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plans could include federal spending, she replied: “I believe the answer is yes.”

Prior to the hearing, Senator John Thune of South Dakota confirmed that infrastructure investment could include spending to improve aviation services.

The Senate committee raised no objections to her appointment, which is now seen as a formality ahead of a full vote in Senate.

Speaking to GTDT Aviation Law News ahead of the hearing, David Whitestone at Holland & Knight in Washington, DC, said plans to reorganise air traffic control would likely see the ATO detached from the FAA.

“There have been suggestions that the operational aspects of the FAA would perform better if they were in a different organisation. Different of course is subject to interpretation,” he said. “There are 535 members of Congress and there are probably 536 opinions on how to manage air traffic at the FAA.”

Last July, the US House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposed such a measure as part of a bill extending the FAA’s authority to operate until September 2017, but the proposal was not approved. A further reauthorisation bill is planned later this year.

“There are several reasons why that particular piece of legislation didn’t get approved in that form: one was time, the other was that there was a strong belief by many that additional thought was necessary. We now have another year under the belt of smart people thinking about it so I expect it will come back up,” Whitestone said.

“In the House of Representatives, you need 218 and I’m not sure there are 218 right now. In the Senate, you need 60 out of 100 and I’m not sure there are 60. But there is a new dynamic and that is the new administration. If the administration supports such a change in structure, then you might be able to get to 218 in the House. 60 is still a stretch in the Senate, but it is possible.”

Chao, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and emigrated to the US aged eight, was nominated by Donald Trump on 29 November 2016. Prior to serving as labour secretary under George W Bush, she was deputy secretary of transportation and director of the Peace Corps under his father, George H W Bush.

Her confirmation hearing at times adopted an informal, familiar tone, as questions were asked by colleagues of her husband, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Early on in the hearing, she joked: “I will be working to lock in the majority leader’s support tonight over dinner.”