FAA chief Babbitt flies on after having ‘worst three weeks in Washington’

Randy Babbitt flew jetliners for Eastern Airlines for 25 years, but the turbulence he faced as a pilot is nothing like the bumps he’s hit as chief of the Federal Aviation Administration.  

Babbitt runs an agency with 49,000 employees that he says manages the safest aviation system in the world.  

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But when air traffic controllers made headlines earlier this year by falling asleep on the job, Babbitt said there was not much interest in the things the FAA was doing right. 

“I was given the award for the ‘Worst Week in Washington,’ ” Babbitt recalls of the period. “I joke that I was cheated. I had the worst three weeks in Washington.

“My 40 years in the private sector did not prepare me to work with Congress,” he said with a laugh. 

Babbitt has served as president of the Air Line Pilots Association and been a member of the FAA’s Management Advisory Council, experience that he said has been invaluable in leading the agency. 

“I understand a lot of the components,” he said. “I understand the mechanics of the companies we regulate, the machines and the people.” 

His leadership has been put to the test by fights over the FAA’s funding in Congress. The agency has not had an authorization bill passed since 2003, and earlier this year, negotiations on a routine short-term extension broke down. 

The result was a partial shutdown of the agency that lasted about two weeks and put 4,000 FAA workers on a temporary furlough. 

The extension Congress passed to end the shutdown in August was the 22nd short-term funding bill for the FAA since 2007. Babbitt said he never thought the spending fight would come to a shutdown of his agency. 

“We were prepared for it a few times,” he said. “You have to face reality, but I never thought they would do that.”

Babbitt attributed the FAA’s troubles securing long-term funding to “a number of issues that we don’t think have much to do with us,” such as a fight over labor rights for transportation workers who are covered under the Railway Labor Act.

The provisions would not affect FAA workers, he said, though most lawmakers attributed the disagreement that led to the shutdown of the agency to the language.  

“No labor in the FAA is covered by the National Mediation Board,” Babbitt said. “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” 

Babbitt said he and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took the impact the shutdown had on the finances of FAA workers “very personally,” though lawmakers later approved back pay for the furloughed employees. 

LaHood was similarly complimentary of Babbitt, saying he is “a champion of safety and has been throughout his entire aviation career.” 

“Under his leadership he has greatly improved FAA’s relationship with labor and brought morale up across the agency,” LaHood said in a statement provided to The Hill. “His background as a pilot makes him a perfect fit for FAA administrator since he understands what it takes to be a true safety professional and how much trust the American people are placing in us to help them reach their destinations safely.”

It’s a role Babbitt said he relishes, though he said airline passengers sometimes get confused about the FAA’s role in the aviation system. 

“We get a lot of mail from people who want to know why their trip through security was so painful,” he said, despite the fact that the Transportation Security Administration is housed under the Department of Homeland Security. 

“For better or for worse, people often relate their experience at the airport to the FAA,” he said. “It’s an easy three letters to remember.” 

Babbitt said he still does some flying of his own. He maintains an active pilot’s license and sometimes flies airplanes used in FAA operations, such as transporting members of the National Transportation Safety Board to the scenes of investigations.

“I enjoy it,” he says of his time in the sky, “but I like it not to be exciting.” 

Babbitt has been flying since he was 16 years old. One of the parts of his job at the FAA he said he enjoys most is speaking to people who similarly develop an interest in flying at a young age, such as a speech he gave earlier this year at the graduation ceremony for Vaughn Aeronautical College in New York City.

“My concern is, where are we going to get the next generation of pilots from?” he said. “I think as an industry, we need to think about that. The military doesn’t produce the pilots it used to.” 

Babbitt said he doesn’t think of his position at the FAA as being political, though he acknowledges “there are some that do.” 

Babbitt, who was appointed for five years by President Obama in 2009, also said he thinks one term as FAA administrator is enough.

Looking ahead, Babbitt said he hopes to continue to make progress on modernizing the navigation system of the aviation industry.

The FAA has been trying to switch the air traffic control system from World War II-era radar technology to a satellite-based system called NextGen. Plans call for the system to be installed by 2014 at the busiest airports, and nationwide by 2020, but Babbitt has faced questions from Congress and airlines about the estimated $22 billion cost to the FAA.

“It’s a fascinating job,” Babbitt said of the FAA. “It’s my first time serving in the public sector, and I’ve worked with wonderful people.”

But he quickly added: “I’m serving a five-year term. When it ends, it ends.” 

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