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Newsmaker: Norman Mineta

April 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today, at select airports across the country, American Airlines’ flight attendants held what they called “informational picketing” to highlight their stalled contract talks with the airline. American and the union representing its 23,000 flight attendants have been in talks for two years.

ROBERT VALENTA (union spokesman): American Airlines is a very profitable company, and yet the flight attendants of American Airlines have fallen to number six in the industry. So we’re the sixth worst paid, actually. So we’re struggling to keep up with our other co-workers and colleagues at other airlines and want to be brought up to that level.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Delays, long lines, and crowds have become familiar scenes at U.S. airports. According to the Department of Transportation, last year was the worst on record with about three of every 10 flights delayed. Frustrations boiled over.

PASSENGER: They say, first it is mechanical difficulties, and now they can’t get a crew, then it is the weather. You can’t get a straight answer from anybody.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The problems may get worse. For the first time in decades, the nation’s largest airlines face labor unrest at the same time with strikes and slowdowns threatened as the peak travel season gets underway.

United, one of the two largest airlines in the world, could see strikes from both its flight attendants — who have threatened staggered, unannounced walkouts if United completes its proposed merger with U.S. Airways — and its mechanics union, which has been negotiating a new contract for more than a year.

Northwest Airlines reached a tentative pact this week with its more than 9,000 mechanics, cleaners, and custodians, but the union has yet to ratify the agreement, keeping open the possibility of a May 11 strike.

Last month, President Bush prevented the mechanics from striking for 60 days when he issued an executive order calling for a cooling off period. At Delta Airlines, pilots have threatened to strike on April 29. And two weeks ago, pilots at Delta’s regional carrier Comair walked off the job. The pilots’ union wants its regional pilots to be compensated on the same scale as pilots for the national carriers.

Amid the growing gridlock in the skies, the FAA is struggling to modernize its computer and air traffic control systems, and the industry is consolidating. American Airlines’ takeover of struggling TWA is close to completion. A merger between United and U.S. Airways awaits the federal government’s approval. The deals would leave American and United controlling more than 45 percent of U.S. commercial air travel.

GWEN IFILL: The Bush administration’s new point-man on airlines and other transport issues is Norman Mineta. He served as Commerce Secretary under President Clinton, as a vice president at Lockheed-Martin Corporation and as a California Congressman from 1975 to 1995. He is now the only Democrat in President Bush’s cabinet. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

NORMAN MINETA: Thank you, Gwen

GWEN IFILL: How concerned are you that everything that we’ve been hearing about involving the airline industry, whether it’s labor or delays or anything else, that it’s all going to come to a head this summer?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, there is no question this is a great deal of concern to all of us. In terms of labor strikes, the president said he doesn’t want to see any of this happening because of the impact on the consumer as well as the economy. And so this summer, between the increase in traffic, plus labor negotiations going on, if we have a convergence of that, it could be a very, very difficult time.

But I would like to think that between the air traffic controllers and the command center that we have established at Herndon, Virginia, where we have collaborative decision making so when we have bad weather, we have the air traffic controllers and the airlines sitting there making sure that things flow as smoothly as possible.

On the labor negotiations, I think the fact that Northwest and the mechanics, the AMPHA union settled this last weekend. We have Delta and the pilots getting together this next week. Again I think things are working as they should be, and I think that is what the president wants to make sure happens in the labor process.

GWEN IFILL: How aggressively involved can the White House afford to be in these kinds of labor negotiations? The president has said he doesn’t want there to be any kind of strike this summer, but he has also not stepped in the Delta Comair strike but he did step into Northwest?

NORMAN MINETA: I think because the National Mediation Board has to make that recommendation to the president. So because of the large market share that Northwest Airlines has, as well as the facts that in South Dakota, North Dakota, a number of communities, if Northwest were to shut down, they would be severely impacted. So the president wanted to signal early on that he didn’t want a strike to occur, and said once the parties are released by the National Mediation Board, and they make a recommendation to him for a Presidential Emergency Board, he would appoint one but he did that early on to signal to everybody since that was also the first one that, that he didn’t — that he wanted to make sure the process took place but that he was ready to act.

GWEN IFILL: Are you optimistic, pessimistic whether there will be strikes this summer?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, frankly I’m optimistic. Given the fact that a major strike or negotiation was settled and with the Northwest, now the Delta pilots are going to be starting. And that will be starting on the 18th. I was hoping it would be earlier sometime this week, but I’m still sanguine about what is going to happen as a result of those let’s say couple three days of hard negotiations by those parties.

GWEN IFILL: The other things that affect many passengers lives very pointedly every single day is this idea of airline delays. Do you have any — about a couple of years ago Congress was moving to pass a passenger’s bill of rights, airline passengers’ bill of rights. And they didn’t do it because the industry said it would fix it themselves. Has that happened?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, the industry did come up with a 12-point package on what they would be doing. The inspector general from the Department of Transportation did report earlier in March that the airlines had pretty much adhered to what they said they would be doing, and there were certain things that they wanted to see improvements on and that is where there was a public reaction saying — I don’t think they really fulfilled their obligations to themselves, that they would give to the public. And now Congress has passed in the Senate a passenger bill of rights.

GWEN IFILL: But the on time rate continues to decline. What is it that the government can do, should do, to try to address those delays — does it involve instruction, does it involve rerouting, what is it?

NORMAN MINETA: There are a number of factors. As you’ve indicated part of it is the fact that we don’t have the concrete at the airport either in terms of runway or new airports. New airports take 20-25 years to construct. So that is not a short-term solution. Even runway construction is seven to ten years. And so what we really have to do is talk about making sure that — well making sure the system is safe, but in the safety consideration are there things we could be doing? And that is what the FAA is trying to figure out right now — whether the distance between airplanes as they are flying across the country can be shortened. Are there areas in which on ground we can have ground radar to make sure that we don’t have — or that we can have air traffic controllers getting planes off more quickly.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things you suggested is actually trying to allow more planes to take off without necessarily — even if there is a weather delay that has been imposed. Wouldn’t that decrease safety?

NORMAN MINETA: No, well, one thing I don’t want to do is to decrease safety. However, as we looked at the charts and we saw — here is the growth of departures, but we saw this very erratic number of delays, and then in 1998, this, the number of delays just shot up. When we looked at the number of delays, 68.7 percent of those delays were weather related. And I looked at it and I was wondering, did the weather really get that bad in 1998? Well, what happened we think or is the fact that in 1998, we allowed — we put the weather radar on the scope that the air traffic controllers are looking at. And I think what has happened is that now that they see the yellows and the oranges and reds like we see on our nightly news when we get our weather report, that they are saying, well, we’ll delay planes from coming into yellow areas. And we think they are just being too cautious in terms of the weather.

GWEN IFILL: I want to move on to talk about mergers, what everybody hears all the time is this talk of United Airlines-USAirways merger, American Airlines- TWA approved this week. Is that good for business; is that good for consumers?

NORMAN MINETA: Well, the big question is are consumers being served and are there enough competitive forces either to increase service or keep fares low. Now, I don’t know what the number of airlines that we — that would be the minimum that we would allow, in order to make sure that service is good, and fares are low. There is no question that more and more mergers and acquisitions we have, at some point if there is no competition then fares will go up, and –.

GWEN IFILL: So at what point does the government start saying no if these two big mergers are approved and then Northwest and Continental say they want to merge.

NORMAN MINETA: Sure — and then Delta is out there.

GWEN IFILL: Where does it end?

NORMAN MINETA: That’s right. That’s — I don’t have a good answer as to what is the number of airlines to do that. And I think that is why the Department of Justice looks at it from an anti-trust perspective. I think there are other public interests, public policy issues that go beyond just antitrust And that is where I would like to have the Department of Transportation being the party to speak to those issues. And other than just the Department of Justice looking at them from an antitrust perspective, and I think that the Department of Justice is welcoming our thoughts about those issues – much more today than they were sometime ago.

GWEN IFILL: One more question for you. How does it feel being the Democrat in the hen house?

NORMAN MINETA: I tell you, it’s great working in this administration. There is no “D” after my name when I’m sitting around the table at the cabinet meetings working with Andy Card, the chief of staff, and working with the president.

GWEN IFILL: No disagreements?

NORMAN MINETA: Oh, we have disagreements and we can sit there and have those going on, but, you know, once the boss makes the decision, that is it. We carry it out.

GWEN IFILL: You might disagree but you’ll go along with it?

NORMAN MINETA: Absolutely, I’m a team player and once the issues and pros and cons are fought out, a decision is made, I salute and we go on.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we’ll be talking about some more as your term continues. Thank you very much for joining us, Secretary Mineta.

NORMAN MINETA: Thank you.