Transportation secretary: Commercial airlines should not ground flights

UPDATED: April 3, 1:25 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — As we find ourselves in this unprecedented time, social distancing is critical. Many modes of transportation have reduced services or cut them altogether.

Although social distancing is crucial, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in an interview with KYW Newsradio that domestic flights should not be temporarily grounded during the coronavirus crisis.

“Social distancing is very important and we must abide by that, but right now the airline companies are experiencing a 94% drop in passengers. Some of the airplanes are huge 737s — they’re carrying six people, they’re carrying nine people,” she said on Thursday. “These are commercial decisions that should be made by the airline companies.”

Fewer than 150,000 people were screened at airports across the country at the end of March, compared to 2.3 million at the start. National air space has seen a drop of 86%, in terms of the number of planes in the sky. Still, Chao said the federal government is focused on people on the frontlines of this crisis, like health care workers and first responders. 

“The airline companies are hurting badly, but there are still people who need to get from, for example, New York to California. They can't spend three days driving from New York to California,” she said. “They need to have this essential service available.”

Some airlines are refusing to give refunds to canceled flights, and instead are offering travel credits. However, Chao said her department will order airlines to abide by federal policies, and people should be eligible for full refunds.

BREAKING: after questions from @KYWNewsradio to @SecElaineChao, @USDOT issues guidance that airlines *must provide refunds* to passengers when flights are canceled — airlines are not permitted to offer only credit toward future flights

— Ian Bush (@ianthebush) April 3, 2020

“During extraordinary times like this when people have to make involuntary travel, plan changes — I think we all need to be more flexible,” she said. “But on top of that, the department has a responsibility to look at the consumer protection rights of passengers, and we will do that.”

Chao’s Department of Transportation is giving emergency grants to transit agencies across the country, totalling $25 billion.

Another $50 billion is allocated for airlines, $10 billion for airports and $1 billion for rail services like Amtrak.

SEPTA has seen a dramatic drop in ridership, too, due to the coronavirus, and it faces a $150 million revenue shortfall. Philadelphia-area transit agencies, including SEPTA, will receive roughly $700 million. Chao said this grant will help agencies recover.

“We need these transit systems No. 1 to be operational, because we have essential workers relying on public transit to get from place to place,” she said. They’re also trying to prevent workers from being laid off.

New Jersey is set to receive $124 million in federal aid for transit relief, Delaware $49.6 million, and Maryland $4.8 million.

SEPTA has said even with this funding, it cannot afford to give its workers hazard pay. The union says workers are being exposed and do not have personal protective equipment. Chao believes this should be figured out at the local and state level.

“The governor should also be involved in this,” said Chao, “the governor and also the mayor. All of us have to work together, and when you get the federal government involved in some of these issues, it gets extremely bureaucratic. The best solution is local action, state-administered, federal aid-partnered.”


KYW Newsradio's Ian Bush and Rachel Kurland contributed to this report.