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September 15, 2020

U.S. transportation secretary on COVID response, innovative horizon

At the first virtual Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association Forum on Air & Space Law, U.S. Secretary Elaine L. Chao shared the actions of the Department of Transportation to help the United States overcome the challenges of COVID-19 and updated on current DOT priorities.  

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao

U.S. Dept. of Transportation photo

Since President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, Chao said $10 billion of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act was made available “in record time” to assist airports to help “meet payroll and keep the operations going.”  

She said DOT also helped the Treasury Department provide an additional $50 billion in financial assistance, which included payroll aid to airlines, travel agents, aviation and airport contractors, to cover loses and operating expenses.

Other earmarks included:

  • $25 billion distributed to the transit industry,
  • $1 billion to Amtrak,
  • 100 million masks and other supplies to help protect passengers and workers throughout the transportation industry.

Chao said the $2 billion in airport safety and infrastructure grants, “ensures that our airports are ready to go when travel levels return to normal.”

Beyond its monetary assistance to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, Chao said DOT is helping to “lay a foundation for future aviation growth and innovation.”

Among those priorities, she said the department is working toward the “safe integration of drones into the national air space,” noting the use of drones for package delivery, search-and-rescue missions – and potentially passenger flights.

Chao said policies to guide such drone use will be developed using “valuable information” gathered by the UAS Integration Pilot Program.  Ending in October, the program was established in 2017 to learn how drones can be safely operated and integrated into the national air space.

In addition to drone use, Chao said that the commercial space sector is seeing growth. “With this administration’s encouragement and innovations, such as reusable rockets, America is once again number one in commercial space.”

Last spring, a NASA licensed rocket was the first commercial launcher to carry passengers into orbit.

“This fall, the first FAA licensed crew commercial launch will carry four astronauts up to the International Space Station,” Chao said, adding that the department’s new Space Data Integrator will allow air traffic controllers to accommodate such launches and reentries with far less disruption of regular air traffic.”

The Space Data Integrator is one of many new capabilities that the FAA is developing to help commercial space vehicles safely integrate into air space.

Even more innovations are paving the way for future space travel. “In April, the FAA completed the reorganization of the office of commercial space transportation to make it more responsive,” Chao said. “It now hosts the office of space ports, which licenses civilian space ports.”

Chao hinted at a new rule that will be published by the Department of Transportation, that will “streamline the way federal transportation regulations cover space launch and reentry operations,” Chao said the “proposed rule should provide a safe performance based regulatory approach to commercial space transportation.

“It will promote safety practices by creating flexibility by operators to meet safety requirements and by enhancing collaboration among stakeholders.”

Chao added, the department is “helping to position the aerospace sector to resume its role as a driver of economic growth and technological innovation.”

The three-day Forum on Air and Space Law meeting was the opener to free programming for the month of September to Forum members. Meetings involving the space, drones, general aviation, airports, consumer protections and competition, cargo and sustainability committees will take place at various time this month. To learn more, click here.