Aviation and International Affairs Nominee Flies Through Confirmation Hearing

August 23, 2018

Praised by both sides of the aisle as an “exemplary leader” who is “uniquely qualified for the position,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Aviation and International Affairs Joel Szabat had an easy time at his nomination hearing Thursday to get promoted to the Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs.

In his current role, Deputy Assistant Secretary Szabat has already been managing the Office of Aviation and International Affairs since January 2018. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-ND) thus called Deputy Assistant Secretary Szabat “uniquely qualified for the position.” Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL), for his part, told Deputy Assistant Secretary Szabat he “appreciate[s] your many years of public service.”

Szabat also enjoys the support of former Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood, who introduced the nominee at Thursday’s hearing as an “exemplary leader in federal service for over 25 years.” According to Sec. LaHood, Deputy Assistant Secretary Szabat also has the “strong support” of current Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao.

Szabat has had a long career already at USDOT and in the federal government; before becoming deputy assistant secretary in January, he was the executive director at the Maritime Administration (MARAD), where among other things he led an effort to quantify the number of U.S. flagships necessary to employ enough mariners to meet military sealift requirements. Before that, he was selected as USDOT’s federal officer responsible for implementing $48 billion of Recovery Act funds and helped manage the development and administration of the first round of TIGER (now BUILD) grants.

As to the new position, Szabat outlined in his opening remarks three primary goals for his management of the Office of Aviation and International Affairs: first, to support Sec. Chao’s primary mission of safety through the economic licensing of air carriers; second, to ensure antitrust immunity determinations and international agreements (such as Open Skies and other aviation accords) provide a fair deal to American taxpayers, labor, industry, and travelers; and third, to work for small, rural communities that are customers of the Essential Air Service (EAS) and Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP).

The last of the three was of particular interest to several members of the committee, including Chairman Thune, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

EAS was put in place following airline deregulation in the 1970s to ensure small communities maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service. This is usually accomplished by providing carriers with a subsidy to supply two round trips a day to bring members of small communities to a large- or medium-hub airport. SCASDP provides grants and other forms of financing to 16 small communities to address air service and airfare issues.

Szabat said that “if confirmed, I will be a voice to champion the importance of what the local community leaders tell us… which is dependable, reliable, and frequent air service to these essential air service communities.”

The nominee acknowledged that costs to provide service to EAS communities has doubled, but expressed confidence they can find ways to contain those costs while still maintaining and even expanding service.

“We want to continue to provide these essential air services,” he said when asked by Sen. Cortez Masto for his thoughts on how to support mid- and small-community air service, “but we are going to have to work with the communities to find a more cost-effective way to increase the frequency and especially the reliability of the air service to these communities.”

The reliability component is critical: without reliability, he said, travelers would rather drive a longer distance to a larger airport.

Improving the U.S.-China Aviation Partnership

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) questioned Deputy Assistant Secretary Szabat on China’s “bullying tactics” against U.S. airlines. This April, the Civil Aviation Administration of China demanded that global airlines refer to Taiwan explicitly as part of China or else face sanctions that could potentially cripple their China business. Despite the White House lambasting the order and imploring U.S. airlines to stand firm, many including the three largest U.S. air carriers (Delta, United, and American Airlines) opted to obey the order.

Szabat described a balancing act in which they made it clear they opposed China’s action but “didn’t want to order business on how they should respond.” Instead, he said they worked with affected airlines and “encouraged them to work together so they wouldn’t get picked off one by one by the Chinese government.”

More broadly, Szabat outlined there areas where he would like to see improved progress in the U.S.-China aviation partnership: the ability of freight carriers to fly into China and then move from one airport to another; airport congestion in China that affects their ability to provide U.S. carriers with the slots and frequencies of service they would like; and what he called “day-to-day issues” such as giving carriers more notice before inspections.

The committee also considered at the same hearing the nominations of Kelvin Droegemeier to be the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and James Morhard to be Deputy Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Read the three nominees’ prepared testimonies here.

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