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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Republicans and Democrats at Odds Over Biden’s FAA Pick

Under federal law, the FAA administrator must “have experience in a field directly related to aviation” and “be a civilian".

U.S. Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-MO) sent a letter to President Biden on March 2 urging him to immediately withdraw his nominee for administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Phil Washington, because he fails to meet the legal requirements to be confirmed and serve.

Under federal law, the FAA administrator must “have experience in a field directly related to aviation” and “be a civilian,” which Congress has strictly interpreted as excluding retired military members. The letter explains how Mr. Washington, who is a retired member of the Army, does not meet these requirements and why Congress will not pass legislation to grant him a waiver from the law’s “civilian” requirement.

In the letter Ranking Member Cruz and Chairman Graves write:

“Through the years, Congress and the President have repeatedly put this strict interpretation of the law’s ‘civilian’ requirement into practice when retired military members have been nominated to serve as FAA Administrator. On no less than six occasions, including four occasions during your service in the Senate, Congress has required the passage of legislative waivers, or similar actions, to allow retired military members to serve in the role of Administrator without violating the law.

“This interpretation is also a bipartisan one; each previous waiver has been insisted on by a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives as well as Presidents and Senators of both parties. When examined through the lens of the statute’s legislative history and the clear precedents Congress has set with prior FAA Administrators, it is obvious that Mr. Washington, who is a retired member of the Army, is not a ‘civilian’ under the statute. Thus, his appointment requires a change in law, i.e., a waiver, passed by both the House and Senate […]

“In addition to the requirement that the FAA Administrator be a civilian, the law also requires that the Administrator ‘have experience in a field directly related to aviation.’ Mr. Washington’s resume shows extensive experience in several modes of transportation and it would be fair to say that he has experience in light rail, commuter buses, the electrification of mass transit fleets, and the implementation of ‘equity’ initiatives consistent with the radical social justice movement on the political left. However, his ‘experience in a field directly related to aviation’ is rather lacking[…]

“We urge you to withdraw this deeply flawed nomination immediately and instead nominate an individual who both meets the statutory qualifications for the position and has the temperament, judgment, and experience necessary to be successful at this pivotal time for the FAA and aviation more broadly. The success of the Nation’s aviation system, and the safety of the flying public, are too important to risk on an inexperienced, unqualified nominee.”

During a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation nomination hearing for Phil Washington on March 1, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Committee, and other Committee Democratic members focused on the nominee’s qualifications and extensive history leading complex transportation systems, ensuring that safety is a top priority for the nation’s aviation safety Administrator.

“The safety mission of the FAA starts at the top with the Administrator and I hope to hear from you, Mr. Washington, about your vision for making sure that the FAA is the gold standard in aviation safety,” said Sen. Cantwell in her opening remarks. “You represent a great career that we much appreciate. Mr. Washington is a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army where he rose to the rank of Command Sergeant Major, the highest noncommissioned officer rank an enlisted soldier can achieve and he would be the first African American confirmed to serve as the FAA Administrator.”

“My experience as CEO of the third busiest airport in the world, Denver International Airport with 35,000 workers, translates well to the FAA,” said Phil Washington in his testimony. “During the aviation challenges of the last several months, travelers through my airport have not asked me how much direct aviation experience I had. Instead, they asked me where their luggage was, why their flight was delayed or canceled, and how their families would survive in my airport during rigid nights. We engaged with our partners, worked as a team, and took care of travelers at my airport.

“The FAA is at a crossroads – an agency that must protect the safest era in aviation, modernize its technology, lift employee morale while staffing up, and maintain its global leadership in aviation. We need permanent leadership at the top of the FAA to address the challenges that we have seen in the last several years. If confirmed, I will draw on a career spanning almost 45 years to be that leader. The safety of the traveling public will remain my top priority – as it has been for me leading the third largest airport in the world, two large transit agencies, and men and women in uniform.”

Washington talked about his 45 years of experience, which includes leading large transportation systems in Denver and Los Angeles, managing multi-million dollar projects to expand public transit, and a 24-year career in the U.S. Army where he rose to the rank of Command Sergeant Major, the highest non-commissioned officer rank an enlisted soldier can achieve.

As the current CEO of the Denver International Airport, the world’s third busiest airport, Washington was introduced by Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, both D-Colo., who attested to his leadership and how he transformed Denver’s transit system over the last few decades as leader of the Denver Regional Transportation District and now Denver International Airport. Also in attendance supporting Washington was Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

“He’s built a reputation of coming into organizations filled with challenges and successfully transforming them into successes. He takes on the big complex problems and gets results. This is the kind of person we want in our federal management system,” said Sen. Hickenlooper.

Sen. Bennet following saying, “I understand some members of this Committee have argued Phil lacks direct experience in aviation…I’m surprised by that because as we’ve heard, he currently is running the third busiest airport on planet Earth. He literally spends every day liaising with 25 airlines, managing over 30,000 employees, and navigating local, state, and federal aviation policy. He’s spearheading the most ambitious overhaul of that third busiest airport at DIA since Colorado first built the airport almost 30 years ago.”

Senator Bennet continued, “Instead of focusing on Phil’s obvious qualifications, there’s been an attempt in recent months to distract from his record and frankly, impugn his character…I will just say that the past 20 years have left me only with the highest regard for Phil’s integrity and leadership. That’s what the people of Denver believe about Phil and the people of Colorado do as well. And you don’t have to take my word for it. The Mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock, is at the hearing.”

“Any fair assessment of his career and of his character would see a nominee with integrity, drive, and a record of results at every institution he’s led. You would make an outstanding administrator for the FAA and I wholeheartedly endorse his nomination.”

As Congress is working on the next FAA reauthorization bill, Sen. Cantwell mentioned the Aircraft Certification Safety and Accountability Act she passed with Sen. Wicker in response to the Boeing 737 MAX accidents, saying: “Our reforms made sure that those employees who are doing this certification work were directly hired, that they were able to communicate directly with the FAA, and that they were able to be removed from the FAA.”

Sen. Cantwell asked, “do you support that focus? And will you continue to fight to implement the oversight of an aggressive FAA holding manufacturers accountable for their work in engineering?”

“Absolutely, yes,” Washington responded. “I think Administrator Dickson and Acting Administrator Nolen have done a great job of sort of foot stomping, that we are the regulator. I will also continue the implementation of the reform act and look to accelerate the outstanding things that have not been completed. So absolutely, yes.”

Read more at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

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