By: CAPA JRC reporter Doris Wang
[Joel Szabat is a transportation expert who has contributed to both the public and private sectors. Szabat has held various positions in public service, including Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Transportation.]
Q: Tell us your experience as acting under secretary of transportation and assistant secretary of aviation and international affairs. What were your main responsibilities?
I was first confirmed to full time by the Senate [for] aviation and affairs. For that job, there were two main responsibilities. If you want to fly anywhere in the United States to another nation, there has to be…an international agreement…between the government of the United States and the government of the other country. [That was the first responsibility.] The office I oversaw, manages negotiations on 140 agreements with other countries. If airplanes want to fly between the US and China, the governments need to agree on the number of flights, the routes, and the cities. That’s…a hugely important part of what we do.
The second part [is] within the United States, and there’s two things: One is, we have an entire separate organization, the Federal Aviation Organization, [to] handle all the day-to-day operations safely. Before any company can fly an airline, we review them for their “fitness review.” Is the airline fit to fly? Does it have appropriate management? Are their financials sound? You don’t want an airline to go bankrupt and abandon passengers. [The other thing] is, we actually run a small program giving subsidies to airlines to serve small communities in order for them to get commercial service. My office awards the contracts to the airlines and makes sure that they fill those terms. That’s the work of aviation offices.
[Secondly], as Undersecretary of Transportation, the number three position in the department…the responsibility is to ensure policies and give recommendations for new ideas and things we can do differently with transportation, whether it’s [relating to] railroads, highways, or ships. That all comes through the Undersecretary and staff of that office.
Q: As a member that was part of the White House COVID-19 Task Force, how did you contribute to the efforts in managing the pandemic’s impacts on the transportation sector?
The main reason I was on the task force was to address the impact on the transportation sector. This was really important in the first couple of months. When the pandemic first hit, we had to evacuate cruise ships - One off the coast of Japan, one off the coast of California. Then we had to make a determination: on a cruise ship, it’s very easy for any virus to be transmitted room-to-room, via air conditioning. There’s no filtration system, so if one person gets sick, it easily transfers to everybody. One of the first decisions the task force made was to shut down the cruise industry. I remember there was a task force meeting [in which] Vice President Mike Pence asked us something. After we evacuated the first few cruise ships and moved all passengers to quarantine on military bases, the bases said they were full. [Following that declaration,] Pence asked “How many cruise ships are out there?” Within 15 minutes, my staff gave me the answer: there were 101 cruise ships that within the next ten days would bring 368,000 passengers and crews to US ports. That was too many; it would overwhelm the system. As each ship came in, [we said that] that would be the last cruise it would make. Over a two week period, we shut down the cruise industry.
We did the same thing with airlines. Originally, the infected people were coming in from China, then from Europe. We knew we would never stop the spread, but we wanted to slow it down. We put flight restrictions first on flights from China, then Europe, then all over the world. The vaccination requirements we put in place were being tested. Then there were many months of discussion on how to track passengers that tested positive when they came in; that was a very medical and technical conversation.
[Apart from that], early on, when there was a shortage of masks and protective gear, we got over a million masks and we distributed them to the “front-line people,” the people in the transportation industry that would be most exposed to COVID. Within six months we had enough masks for everybody.
Q: During your tenure as Director of Amtrak Board of Directors, what changes did you plan to implement to improve the transportation system?
When I was in transportation as the Undersecretary, I represented Secretary Chao on the Board of Directors. There’s eight members that are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate [on the board]. One person represents the Secretary of Transportation, so for the last two years, I represented the Transportation department. Our biggest issue then was COVID; we were dealing with all the COVID related challenges. Moving forward, President Biden has nominated me to be on the board. The full Senate has not yet voted on any of the eight of us.
I told the Senate that if I was confirmed, my number one focus would be on safety. Transportation is a safety regulatory agency; safety is always a priority. Number two, something I think Amtrak can do more [of] is something we call service reliability. We want Amtrak to serve more customers. People will not ride Amtrak unless the trains are on time. Outside the northeast corridor, they mostly are not. And that is because Amtrak depends on the availability of space for their trains as they borrow tracks from freight railroads…if they get stuck behind another train, they can’t meet their schedule. We need to solve that problem if we want more passengers. That’s my third goal. When I was Undersecretary before COVID hit, Amtrak was on pace for the first time in its history, its revenue was going to be higher than the amount of money it cost every year. Then COVID hit…I’d like to see Amtrak back to the point where on an annual basis, its operations cover its expenses. That lowers the burden on taxpayers.
Q: Throughout your career, you’ve served in both public and private sectors. How did you manage to balance the diverse responsibilities and challenges that come with these roles? A large part of it is: you don’t know. You’re learning while doing. From my own experiences, balance is important. I actually retired from public service because I knew I didn’t always have the time to put in that was necessary [to] do the job well enough. It’s funny, because there’s this saying that public sector workers are lazy and private sector workers are always working day and night, but I’m actually retiring to go into the private sector! I’m sure there are jobs in public service [with less work,] but I haven’t found those.
Joel is currently retired from a public service career and is awaiting Senate confirmation for his position on the Amtrak Board of Directors.
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 25 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.