FAA lacks leadership amid key challenges

Flight delays
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
Passengers walk past s flight status board in Terminal C at Orlando International Airport that shows many delays, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, after the FAA grounded all U.S. flights earlier in the day. The world’s largest aircraft fleet was grounded for hours by a cascading outage in a government system that delayed or canceled thousands of flights across the U.S. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) faces a number of challenges in the wake of the national flight grounding earlier this month while President Biden’s pick to lead the agency, who was nominated in July, has yet to even get a hearing. 

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, aims to hold the first FAA nomination hearing next month for Phil Washington, the CEO of Denver International Airport, according to her spokesperson.

But Washington faces fierce opposition from Republicans, who criticize his experience and an ongoing corruption investigation implicating him. They could block his nomination if his military service requires him to get a waiver from Congress.

The FAA has been without a permanent leader since March, when Trump-appointed Administrator Steve Dickson stepped down. Since then, the agency — and the aviation industry — have struggled.

Questions about infrastructure, funding

The FAA faces questions from lawmakers and industry leaders about its archaic infrastructure, which was on full display when a Jan. 11 technical outage forced it to ground all U.S. flights for the first time in more than two decades.

At the same time, airlines have warned that the FAA doesn’t have enough staff to accommodate busy travel seasons, and the agency also has to handle the influx of drones and other vehicles that are clogging up U.S. airspace. 

It is also tasked with regulating carriers that have struggled with delays and cancellations, particularly Southwest Airlines, which suffered the worst meltdown in recent memory over the winter holidays. 

And all that comes while the FAA lacks a Senate-confirmed voice as Congress works to reauthorize its funding for the year, a key step in addressing its problems. 

“The Senate should move quickly to confirm him to ensure our industry has the leadership and guidance this moment demands,” Kevin Burke, the president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America, said of Washington. 

Biden nominated Washington to lead the agency amid the resurgence in commercial flying following the coronavirus pandemic, with demand leading to a busy 2022 summer travel season followed by a chaotic one around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Washington, a 20-year transit industry veteran, would run the agency that is in charge of keeping air travel safe by imposing rules such as increasing the amount of rest time airlines must give flight attendants between shifts and dealing with unruly passengers during the pandemic-era mask mandates for air travel.

Brian Keeter, a former Department of Transportation official under President George W. Bush, stressed the importance of having an official administrator in place, calling the role one of the preeminent safety positions in the federal government. 

“Having a confirmed administrator is critical for the U.S. to maintain aviation sector leadership in safety as well as in the development of international standards. It’s particularly critical during a time when supply chains and movement of people, freight and trade are converging at record pace,” Keeter said.

Biden in March named Billy Nolen, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, as acting chief of the agency. But without a permanent FAA administrator in place, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been the only face of the agency. 

The FAA systems outage this month was detrimental to the agency’s standing, with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle calling on Buttigieg to answer questions.

The White House said this week that it is a priority to figure out what happened.

“When it comes to the safety of American people, this is something that is a priority for us. We want to get to the bottom of what occurred … not too long ago. I don’t have any specifics on the action that Congress is going to take,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

GOP opposition, military waiver threaten nomination

Republican senators oppose Washington’s nomination and have urged the Biden administration to pick a new candidate, citing Washington’s lack of aviation experience outside of his stint as head of Denver International Airport, which he started in 2021.

“We can’t leave the flying public’s well-being up to chance. We need a new nominee,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the outgoing ranking member on the Commerce Committee, which oversees FAA nominations, said after the agency grounded flights this month.  

Republicans dug in after Washington was named in a September search warrant investigating allegations of favoritism in no-bid contracts he awarded as CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 

Washington’s road to confirmation is further complicated by his lengthy military service.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the new ranking member on the Commerce Committee, said that Washington is ineligible to serve as FAA administrator without a congressional waiver due to his retired military status.

“The Senate has repeatedly required adoption of a waiver when an FAA administrator nominee was a retired member of the military. But with Phil Washington’s extreme lack of aviation experience and the scandals surrounding him, I am unsure how Democrats plan to obtain passage of such a waiver,” Cruz said in a statement.

Federal law states that the FAA administrator must be a civilian, and Washington is a retired 24-year Army veteran. 

Retired military officials have historically had to secure a waiver or give up their retired military status — thus sacrificing government benefits and their affiliation with the U.S. military — to qualify for the FAA post.

In 1992, Congress approved a waiver for President Clinton’s FAA nominee, a retired Air Force general.

Lawmakers didn’t require a waiver for Dickson, a former Air Force officer, as he didn’t serve the minimum 20 years needed to receive retired status.

Nominees typically only need to secure a simple majority in the Senate to be confirmed. But a waiver, if required, would need to garner 60 votes and pass the GOP-led House, all but dooming Washington’s nomination unless conditions change.

White House sticking with Washington 

But Biden is sticking with his nominee, despite the hold up in getting his confirmation through. The White House has stressed that the FAA has a crucial safety mandate and that Washington is the right person for the job. 

“On the very first day of this Congress, the president re-nominated an experienced, qualified candidate who currently runs one of the busiest airports in the world to lead the agency,” a White House spokesperson told The Hill.

When Washington was tapped for the role in July, he got support from some within the air travel industry, including the Air Line Pilots Association, International, which congratulated him for the nomination.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said the FAA administrator nomination is going to be a priority in the coming weeks. 

And Jean-Pierre earlier this month said the White House is working with Schumer and Cantwell to get Washington’s nomination through swiftly because, “clearly, that is important to us.”

Tags Joe Biden Maria Cantwell

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