February 11, 2013
The nattering nabobs in our nation’s capital are buzzing with speculation that National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman is at the top of the list to replace retiring Department of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood. Excellent choice, if it happens and Hersman accepts.
Some parting thanks to LaHood: He ran the department with professionalism and aplomb during a period of change. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt was forced to resign only a couple of years into his watch following an arrest on charges that were later dropped. A career transportation and government exec, Mike Huerta, replaced Babbitt. LaHood was one of two Republicans in the Obama cabinet (the other was Defense chief Robert Gates), and whether the cross-party factor gets credit or not, his tenure was pretty seamless despite all the turmoil in many parts of the government during that time. Like all government agencies, the DOT is plagued by uncertainty about funding and budgets, which has had some effect on the implementation of the next generation of air traffic management.
When Hersman first took over the chair at the NTSB, she was a media dervish, which can sometimes be a red flag based on past examples. But the Virginia Tech grad (full disclosure: my daughter is a Hokie) and former Capitol Hill staffer (for West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller) soon made it pretty clear that her penchant for frequent public utterances was a matter of principle more than style: One never had to wonder for very long about what was going on at the Board. Besides the increased transparency, she convened hearings in Washington to involve the appropriate communities when safety issues arose, and her oversight of the recent Boeing 787 lithium battery issue has been tough but fair.
What’s different about her is that she seems to grasp the public appeal of her most startling credentials: a commercial drivers license with an air-brake endorsement and a motorcycle operator’s license. If push ever came to shove, she could always find work in the cab of a tour bus, and the bikers can’t say she doesn’t know their world if there’s some safety advice they don’t like. But what’s most interesting about that aspect of her CV is the fact that both spheres, buses and motorcycling, demand operator smarts and are highly visible to the public in terms of highway safety issues. That she chose to dive in and participate in both heavy vehicles and cycling says she leavens intellectual curiosity with a touch of fearlessness.
No, she’s not a pilot, although in a recent interview with AOPA Pilot editor Thomas Haines, she said she’ll pursue that when she has time. That may not be soon.