Last Wednesday, Joe Biden’s second choice to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Michael Whitaker, was endorsed by a Senate Committee with no Republican opposition. This followed a first, unsuccessful attempt to appoint Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington, who was deemed by Senator Ted Cruz, amongst others, to be insufficiently knowledgeable about aviation.
Having spent over three decades in the aviation industry, no one can accuse Whitaker of lacking experience. But will it be enough to overhaul the increasingly floundering FAA and avoid a repeat of the travel chaos seen earlier this year?
A High-Flying Career
In 1991, Michael Whitaker started his career in aviation as an attorney for Trans World Airlines (TWA), working as TWA’s Assistant General Counsel of international and regulatory affairs.
Soon after he moved to United Airlines in Chicago, where he climbed to the position of Senior Vice President of alliances, international and regulatory affairs. He spent nearly 15 years at United, working as a Director, Vice President and then Senior Vice President. His experience at United included forming commercial alliances and joint ventures, advising on international and regulatory affairs, and providing strategic counsel to the Chairman and CEO on international matters.
Upon leaving United in 2009, Whitaker was appointed Group CEO at InterGlobe. Based in Delhi, InterGlobe is India’s largest travel conglomerate and operator of its largest and most successful airline, IndiGo. At InterGlobe, Whitaker oversaw strategy and operations for four affiliate travel companies.
After just over three years at InterGlobe, President Obama appointed Mr Whitaker as Deputy Administrator of the FAA – his first stint at the federal organisation. As Deputy Administrator, he successfully combined industry and government to drive the transition of the US’ air traffic control system from radar to satellite-enabled surveillance technology (ABS-B). Whilst at the FAA, Whitaker also obtained his private pilot certificate.
Subsequently, Whitaker became Global Head of Policy at Supernal, a Hyundai Motor Group corporation trying to design an electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle. He has risen through the ranks at Supernal, where he presently works as Chief Operating Officer, for which he oversees all of Supernal’s commercial and business operations.
Whitaker holds a juris doctorate degree from Georgetown University Law Center and is a capable private pilot. He also serves on the Flight Safety Foundation’s board, a non-profit which aims to promote aviation safety on a global scale.
Whitaker’s experience in the aviation industry is impressively wide-ranging. The likely appointment of someone with Whitaker’s credentials is perhaps a first step in the right direction for the FAA after a year of mishaps and mismanagement.
The Challenge Ahead
On Wednesday 11 January, a computer outage at the FAA caused over 11,300 flights to be grounded across the country. The technical issue stemmed from a procedural error related to a damaged data file, according to the FAA, who subsequently declined to comment further on the matter. The error left thousands of passengers stranded and further soured relations between the agency and airlines.
The computer fault prevented airports form filing the safety warnings which warn pilots of updated hazards, potentially putting many lives at risk.
Calls for modernization and better management of the FAA have since followed. This uproar was compounded by a number of ‘close calls’ near collisions that have also been blamed on the agency.
The most high profile incident came on 16 January, when two passenger planes almost collided on the runway at JFK airport. An American Airlines plane made a wrong turn, crossing a runway as a Delta plane was taking off.
A few weeks later, a FedEx plane was cleared to land in Austin as a Southwest aircraft was taking off. Seconds away from disaster, the FedEx pilots managed to initiate a “go around” to avoid collision.
Further instances have directed people’s attention towards questioning the safety of commercial aviation.
Sydney Ember, an economics reporter at The New York Times, investigated such near misses and found that in July 2023 at least 46 “close calls” occurred, involving commercial passenger planes in the US – more than one a day. Her results point towards the scale of the issue and serious need to reform at the FAA before people get hurt.
“There’s a lot of frustration right now among pilots and among air traffic controllers that they want attention on this. They want the public to know that close calls are happening. And they want the FAA to do more,” said Ember.
She also expressed concerns at the FAA’s ability to rectify this growing problem, saying many in the aviation industry worry “that the FAA is not going to do enough.”
More worryingly still, Ember says the FAA is considered to be a “tombstone agency” in some government circles, meaning it “won’t do anything until something catastrophic does occur, until people do die.”
Hopefully the likely appointment of Michael Whitaker can usher infrastructural change into the FAA. This is essential if the agency is to regain any of the trust lost by passengers and repair its relationship with the airlines that it has let down over the past few years.