Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao talked to Fox News Radio's Guy Benson to give an update on how the Coronavirus Pandemic is effecting transportation throughout the United States. Secretary Chao praised the work of essential workers such as truckers, air-traffic controllers & transportation personal for keeping the supply chain moving.
GUY BENSON, FOX RADIO HOST: Pleased to welcome to the program for the first time, Secretary Elaine Chao, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. She also served during the George W. Bush administration as Secretary of Labor. Madam Secretary, great to have you here.
ELAINE CHAO, U.S. SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: Thanks so much for having me.
BENSON: So, I am just fascinated to hear about how your department is dealing with this crisis, because clearly when you start thinking about -
BENSON: -- trains, planes, and automobiles, your policy portfolio, if you will, is drastically disrupted and affected by coronavirus and the related shutdowns and restrictions.Maybe just give us a broad overview, like a 30,000 foot view of what you're up against?
CHAO: Well, obviously the economic devastation associated with COVID-19 was unimaginable, and the transportation sector both air, as you mentioned, surface and rail and transit have been so impacted. The airline industry is really suffering, the low (ph) factor now is about 4 to 9 percent. And about 68 percent to 78 percent of our airway -- our national air space is now emptied of airlines, planes. And the transit industry, the rails, and the Amtrak, which is very popular in northeast corridor, has basically shut down, and we're seeing declining passengers. But, being the former Secretary of Labor, I'm extremely concerned about the workers, because when the passenger and usage of the transportation system declines like this, the workers, their paychecks, their employment status, is in jeopardy -- which is why it was so good that the president signed the CARES Act on March 27th, just a few hours after the House and the Senate had passed that Bill. So our country has -- if there's any bright point, I mean, our country has gone from something so partisan as impeachment just a couple months before to a bipartisan bill called the CARES Act that was signed by the president on March 27th . But the critical nature of the transportation system now is its role in the supply chain, because while most of us are able to shelter in place, there are workers who must work outside the home because they participate in the supply chain.
CHAO: And when we think, you know - like store shelves don't get stocked by themselves. Medical supplies, essential medical items that are needed, don't appear by themselves. It's all dependent on the supply chain.
BENSON: Right (ph), I think -
CHAO: So we're so grateful to truckers and just so many others who operate this transportation system -- including the air traffic control system that allow the rest of us to safely shelter at home.
BENSON: Yes, so you touched on a number of things that I want to circle back to and other questions. And I think the point that you made about the supply chain is so important, because I think for many, many Americans, during normal times, you go to the store, you go to the grocery store, you don't even think about it. It's almost like magic, of course, there's always food here. But when there are disruptions like this and there are challenges like this, you start to feel a renewed appreciation for the people who actually physically make that happen every single day. And, of course, truckers are a huge part of that. I just want to go back to the airline industry and just air traffic as well, those two issues that you raised.
BENSON: The CARES Act that passed, how is that legislation potentially helping or maybe mitigating some of the pain that you talked about?
CHAO: Well the CARES Act provides about $50 billion in grants and loans to help U.S. airlines basically keep their workforce employed. And the Treasury Department is the one that is in charge of this particular program.The Department of Transportation has been working with the Treasury Department to help with the allocation of the grants. But the most important thing that the Transportation Department has in terms of what we do is ensuring that airlines still cover a community.So that they're still flying to communities, even though, these days, there can be one passenger literally on airplanes, or sometimes six. I mean, the load factor is awful. American Airlines flew 115 flights out last Friday from DCA and launched -- and a not insignificant number of them had one passenger.
CHAO: But, nevertheless, air -- airlines are still very important.I mean, we have got essential workers who need to travel by air to get to where they need to go. Essential medical supplies have to travel by air also, because, even though it's passenger aircraft underneath in the belly, are actually freight. So we need to keep that system going. And it's just really important that we have that coverage. And the other thing also is refunds. Now, I fly a lot, and I fly personally, because I fly home to Louisville, Kentucky, my hometown, from Washington every weekend. And so I know, when the shelter-in-place guidance came from the D.C., Maryland and Virginia government, I couldn't go back home anymore. And so that meant that I had all these outstanding airplane fares. That's just one example where I can see personally what's happening. But the Department of Transportation has a responsibility to remind the airlines and also tell the consumers that they -- under these conditions, we have asked the airlines to be more flexible in refund policies. And so for passengers who don't feel as if they're getting relief, the Department of Transportation has an aviation consumer office. Just go online www.DOT.gov. Click on the aviation -- consumer aviation office, and their complaint -- I'm not soliciting them. But I want to make sure that people know that--
BENSON: It's a resource.
CHAO: Yes, it's a resource. And the Department of Transportation is looking out for their interests.
BENSON: And you mentioned the number of passengers on many of these flights are just drastically reduced really to a -- to a shocking degree. Nevertheless, for all the reasons that you explained, some of these flights are absolutely crucial. It leads to the question of safety as well, because you have air traffic control. And when you have planes filled with people, packed with people, many, many flights over and -- over our nation and in our skies every single day, when that's diminished--
BENSON: -- is the capacity of air traffic control diminished as well? Are there any security safety concerns?
CHAO: There are always safety concerns everywhere we go. That's why we're all told to, number one, practice social distancing, wash our hands frequently, and try to shelter in place as much as possible. Don't go out unless you have to.But airline passenger rolls fell about 97 percent, OK? So the load factor is very low these days. But the number of airplanes that have dropped is only about 65 to 68 percent, so that while the capacity has been cut back, it has certainly not been cut back as much as the drop in passengers. So--
BENSON: I guess--
CHAO: -- many air -- on many airlines, you can actually practice social distancing on the airplane.
BENSON: Which makes sense. You can -- you have rows and rows to yourself. In some cases, passengers have entire planes to themselves. I guess my question, though, just to clarify it a little bit more, is, just because you have these hugely diminished numbers of passengers in flights, for those who are flying and the flights that are in the air, whether it's TSA and security, or whether it's air traffic control and safety, there is no diminished capacity to keep people safe?
CHAO: Not at all.
CHAO: In fact, I have heard that airlines are actually purposely assigning seats providing space between passengers. Safety is always number one, not only in terms of passenger safety, but the airplane safety. Our number one priority is safety.
BENSON: Like maintenance and all of that?
BENSON: So, I want to follow up with -- you mentioned the supply chain, truck drivers in particular. What is the government doing, what is your department doing to be helpful to -- because you imagine we have a lot of people who listen to our show who are truck drivers. Sometimes, they call in. We talk to them. They are out there doing absolutely essential work for the American people right now. And it's got to be scary being away from home, right? Everyone's told, stay at home. They literally can't. What are you doing to -- and not you necessarily, specifically, but your whole department, the administration, the government broadly, to help our truck drivers and everyone along that supply chain?
CHAO: Well, they're the new American heroes. I mean, America's truck drivers, you know, come to the rescue with critical lifesaving supplies whenever there's a disaster, hurricanes, earthquakes, and now a pandemic.And the U.S. Department of Transportation is pulling out all the stops to help these heroes help our country. And so we have taken unprecedented steps to help the trucking industry and the truckers. And these include the first ever nationwide hours of service emergency declaration, waivers for expiring commercial driver's licenses for a limited time, updated guidance on drug and alcohol testing. I mean, some of them -- and some of them have expired commercial driver's licenses. Well, you know, they can't get that renewed. Also -- so we have given them some temporary waivers. And for those that are carrying hazardous materials, we want to make sure that they're safe. And the department requires hazmat drivers to take hazmat refresher courses every three years. And we're going to extend that for 90 days. And, also, rest areas, we've heard that there have been closures of rest areas. Well, obviously, that's going to be important. And then, you know, but even though some -- a lot of these -- some of these rest areas also have closed the food court or their restaurant or -- so, we have allowed food trucks to be present in the rest areas.
BENSON: Oh, interesting.
CHAO: Ordinarily, they're not allowed. Yes. So, we under -- we understand so much what they're -- the sacrifices they are making. So, I think that, personally, we've got to say a big thank you to our truckers. If we see a trucker, a person, say thank you. I mean, they're making our economy work. They're providing things on our store shelves and, as I mentioned, medical supplies to hospitals. So they are really American heroes.
BENSON: Yes. And that's always the case. That's always part of their job description. I just think the importance of it is much more front of mind for far more people under these circumstances. So, we 100 percent join you, Madam Secretary, in a big, hearty, heartfelt thank you to not just the truckers, but the people who pack the trucks, the people who unload the trucks, people who load up the shelves, stock people at these stores and pharmacies and groceries. It's really amazing, and something that--
BENSON: -- as I alluded to earlier, that sometimes you take for granted. I do want to ask you, because we did touch on this. You were labor secretary under the Bush administration, Bush 43. And you, of course, have that as part of your experience and part of how you approach these issues broadly. And we have had Secretary Scalia on the show. I wonder -- and, by the way, I should just point this out. No -- no secret here in Washington, you're married to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. We have had him on this program a number of times. He's currently pushing, as are a number of people in Congress and the administration, for the CARES Act PPP silo, that amount of money, which is helping small businesses keep people on the payroll. They want just a clean update where more funds are put in to that bucket, if you will. And there's a bit of a political wrangling going on right now with the opposition party. Just putting on your labor hat for a moment, if you could just explain the importance of refreshing that fund in particular when it comes to that segment of the labor force.
CHAO: Well, we're so lucky to have Secretary Scalia. He is doing such a wonderful job. And it's his department that talks about, obviously, unemployment insurance and others. You know, we need to rescue small business owners. They have such a difficult time during this period. I mean, they're -- two-thirds of net new jobs are created by small businesses. And small businesses are responsible for the vitality of our economy. So, they really need assistance. And, clearly, there's not enough money for loans. And so we need to up that and -- up that pot of money. And then also I just wanted to mention, for -- I forgot to mention this when we talked about aviation.
CHAO: They're also giving out much needed assistance to airports, $10 billion worth. I just was announcing this afternoon that the department is disbursing $10 billion of needed assistance funds to airports all around the country. We're giving out also $25 billion in transit funding under the CARES Act, and a billion dollars to Amtrak. So, the government and this president is doing everything we can to be helpful and to understand -- to help people clearly are suffering. I mean, the kinds of unemployment that we have had is just unfathomable.When I was secretary of labor -- returning now to labor -- the highest unemployment claims filed in any one week was 800,000. And in the first -- three weeks ago, 3.3 million people filed for unemployment insurance--
CHAO: -- 6.9 people the second week, 6.6 million people. And we now have 17 million people who are unemployed. This weighs heavily on the president and on all of us. So, as a -- you know, as a former secretary of labor, I'm very concerned about the workers, especially about their employment. And we have got to get this economy going, but safely. And we need to help the small business people, the small business employers, because they're the ones who hire a lot of people as well. It's not just single proprietorships. But they hire a lot of people.
CHAO: So -- and--
BENSON: And the numbers you just ran through, Madam Secretary, just comparing the weekly jobless claims in your experience in the Bush administration versus these last few weeks, it truly is astounding. And it's just interesting having this conversation. While the country is at a standstill in a lot of ways, there are airplanes and trains and trucks and vehicles that have to keep going to keep the country going. And that's largely your purview at the Department of Transportation.Thank you very much for the update across those various sectors.
CHAO: Can I also just one give greater--
CHAO: Can I also give one great-shout out to the air traffic controllers? You know, air traffic controllers don't get the luxury of sheltering in place. They have to go out. And they have to go into the towers. And they direct our traffic. So, I want to give a big shout-out to them, to the transit workers who are working so hard, the rail workers. We are so grateful that they're out there protecting us, so that we can stay at home.
BENSON: U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, my guest on "The Guy Benson Show." Madam Secretary, thank you very much for that update and for your time today.
CHAO: Thanks so much for having me.
BENSON: You bet.