Trump’s Pick to Head DOT Won’t Make Flying Great Again


When it comes to commercial air transportation, consumers have two bottom lines. First, it must be cheap. And second, it must be safe.

Under President-elect Trump, it’s likely to become less of both.

This week, Trump chose as his new Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, whose record as Secretary of Labor and Deputy Secretary of Transportation under former President George W. Bush was unflinchingly pro-business, to the detriment of consumer protections and worker safety.

Chao’s conservative bona fides are impeccable. In addition to being married to the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and her time in the Bush administration, she has worked for the avowedly right-wing Heritage Foundation, and is a frequent commentator on Fox News.

While it’s too soon to pinpoint likely changes in aviation policy under Chao, the overall direction can be predicted with a high degree of certainty. Commercial and operational regulations will be relaxed, in favor of “free market” forces. That means less focus on safety, fewer consumer protections, and even less regulatory pushback to industry consolidation.

The net effect will be more pricing power and higher profits for the airlines, and higher prices, less safety, and fewer choices for travel consumers.

Predictably, Airlines for America, the association representing the interests of U.S. airlines, cheered Chao’s appointment. “Elaine Chao is an outstanding pick to be the next Secretary of Transportation. She is a distinguished public servant and leader whose experience in transportation and labor issues, among others, as well as her political skills and the known ability to manage a large organization, will serve the Trump Administration well.”

What is certain is that she will serve the airlines well; and that can only be at the expense of the airlines’ customers. You can’t serve two masters.

Reader Reality Check

How do you expect air transportation to change over the next four years?

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

This article first appeared on, where Tim is Editor-at-Large.


  1. 1. Airlines for America will cheer almost any pick that’s already been announced, they have to work with her. They “looked forward to working with” Anthony Fox, too. (

    2. It’s irresponsible of you to suggest — without any evidence or even specifics — that Elaine Chao or any other DOT nominee will compromise SAFETY. How exactly do you believe that the Secretary of Transportation will compromise the FAA’s aviation safety activities? And do you actually believe that airlines are trying to cut corners with safety, risking their reputations, businesses, liability — held in check only by the DOT’s Secretary?

    3. You may favor specific consumer protections, that’s cool, which one(s) do you expect Secretary Chao to roll back? Generally consumer protections — and you can certainly think it’s worthwhile — raise prices rather than lowering them. They drive up airline costs, and those are a greater percentage of total costs for ultra low cost carriers. They benefit legacy carriers at the expense of startups. Not credible to suggest that an anti-consumer protection regulation tendency at DOT somehow leads to higher prices.

    You don’t have to like Elaine Chao as nominee to become Secretary of Transportation (although she strikes me as fairly up the middle in terms of what you might expect from a Trump administration, at a minimum she’s experienced) unless the President-elect decided to make Transportation Secretary the ‘olive branch’ appointment naming a Democrat.

    But the chicken little stuff doesn’t have a ton of credibility here.

    • Good points Gary.
      One thing I’d like to see the DOT do is reign in the ridiculous “service animal” rules that allow virtually anyone to bring their pet on a commercial flight. While exceptions should be made for actual factual service animals, I live in the first world and don’t enjoy flying with ducks, chickens, and emotional support ferrets.

    • Couple of quick points… the FAA has always been compromised by its conflicting roles as promoter of travel and promoter of safety. My prediction is that Chao will move the needle toward the former, at the expense of the latter. We’ll see. As for airfares, my expectation is that the pricing power resulting from further industry consolidation will more than offset any savings from any regulatory easing. Chao is far from the worst possible choice, but she’s no consumer advocate.

      • Agreed, separation of roles makes sense (just as it’s a conflict for TSA to regulate security and perform security functions).

        So far at least we haven’t seen any meaningful pricing power, airfares have been falling over the past two years.

        I don’t expect regulatory easing to drive further price declines, but in general greater regulation benefits legacy carriers at the expense of ultra low cost carriers which is bad for price competition. Again, that may be a worthwhile tradeoff in any given instance. But consumer protection rules tend to increase prices, not reduce them.

        Chao seems at a minimum a reasonable competent pick and a well-connected one, which frankly is the best I hope for in a Trump administration.

        Ultimately there’s no basis on which to suggest Chao, as DOT Secretary nominee, will uniquely jeopardize safe air travel.


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