Air Transport World

DOT: at the height of its power; a cautious Secretary Dole leads the Department of Transportation through a minefield of aviation issues. (Elizabeth H. Dole)

DOT: At the height of its power

The Department of Transportation was formed on April 1, 1967, to bring cohesion to U.S. transportation policy. Rather than maintaining several modal agencies, each one pursuing its own course, many figured that a DOT would be a more efficient vehicle through which to channel decisions and funds.

But old ways die hard. Within government and the industries affected, allegiances, political contacts and the way of getting things done had to be reworked. As a result, the DOT has had a difficult time gaining more than faint praise from many of its constituents.

Yet, as far as aviation goes, the Department is at the height of its power. Slowly, but steadily, it has grown from simply being the parent of the Federal Aviation Administration, a safety agency, as it was at the beginning. Now, it is principal policy-maker in fact as well as in theory. And, as of January 1, it had also accumulated the residual powers of the Civil Aeronautics Board. Those powers, until at least 1989 and perhaps beyond that date, include the ability to grant anti-trust immunity. Such economic authority over an otherwise deregulated industry normally resides with the Justice Department. Given this breadth of power, it is appropriate to take a look at DOT and its biggest operating unit, the FAA.

It is easy--too easy--to criticize government. The DOT's vast constitutency means its every action breeds critics. There are very few decisions which please all petitioners.

The present administration of DOT is no different from its predecessors. The industry and politicians always seem to recall how well so-and-so former Secretary performed his task, or how quickly decisions used to be made.

Dole's commitment

Most people acknowledge current Secretary Elizabeth Dole's intelligence, the fact that she works hard, that her attention to detail is phenomenal to behold. Dole's White House and congressional connections, and her highly sensitive political antennae also are credited with obtaining some advantage for aviation when and where it counts. Dole's commitment to improving safety, in all modes of transportation, has also pleased many people.

Two major problems seem to bother those dealing with her or her staff: (1) Her slowness in getting things done, in part credited to management style and (2) the high priority placed on the political implications of everything she does.

Dole, a lawyer, has spent a career in government. Caution is the byword. She is compared, unfavorably, with her immediate predecessor, business executive Drew Lewis, who handled the decision to fire the striking air traffic controllers in rapid-fire fashion. Dole and her equally cautious top staff may sit on FAA proposals, whether major or minor, for a year at a time. Even her FAA Administrator, Donald D. Engen, a lifelong military man who understands chain-of-command authority, became frustrated enough over one minor action to write a memo of complaint.

But Dole's management style is handson. She does not issue policy guidelines and then trust her top managers to carry out those guidelines as they see fit. Moreover, her staff, aware of her priorities, must be careful not to miscalculate the ultimate political implications of DOT actions.

It is ironic that many in industry and on Capitol Hill criticize Dole's political concentration. …

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