US Senate confirms Elaine Chao as transport secretary

Elaine Chao attends a ceremony in which she is sworn-in as Secretary of Transportation in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House complex in Washington, DC, US, on Jan 31, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Ms Elaine Chao, a former top US labour official, was sworn in on Tuesday (Jan 31) to lead the US Transportation Department, which overseas aviation, vehicle, train and pipeline safety.

Ms Chao, a former labour secretary and deputy transportation secretary, took office hours after the US Senate voted 93 to 6 to confirm her.

Ms Chao, 63, will face key decisions on how to regulate the growing use of drones and automakers' plans to offer self-driving cars.

She will also be a key player in President Donald Trump's Cabinet if his administration pushes ahead with a major infrastructure spending program, as the businessman-turned-politician promised during last year's presidential campaign.

"Your leadership and your experience will serve well as the secretary of transportation, overseeing what we anticipate will be historic investments in our nation's roads, bridges, airports and above all in our future," said Vice-President Mike Pence, who administered the oath of office to Ms Chao.

"It is an honor to rejoin the extraordinary people of @USDOT and begin working to rebuild America's infrastructure," Ms Chao tweeted.

The Transportation Department has a US$75 billion (S$106 billion) annual budget and about 60,000 employees. It includes the Federal Aviation Administration, which handles air traffic control.

Ms Chao, the wife of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position, also will have to decide whether US fuel efficiency standards should be revised, as some automakers have sought.

There are dozens of other pending regulatory issues facing the next administration, including railroad safety and staffing rules and whether to set rules requiring airlines to give more passengers with disabilities seats with extra leg room and whether to ban or restrict personal phone calls on US flights.

At her confirmation hearing this month, Ms Chao declined to take positions on a number of issues, including whether air traffic control jobs should be privatised, concerns over the safety of shipments of crude oil by rail, foreign airlines' push to move into the US market and regulation of developing technologies.

AAA, the largest US auto club with more than 50 million members, praised Ms Chao's confirmation. AAA CEO Marshall Doney said the group "firmly believes that significant, additional investments are needed to maintain existing infrastructure and to enhance the nation's (transportation) system."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents major US and foreign automakers, said that from "autonomous vehicles to safety to fuel efficiency to infrastructure, Secretary Chao's leadership will profoundly impact our sector and many others."

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