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With Summer Travel Almost Here, the FAA Remains Leaderless

In another twist in the saga of complications and chaos that has been plaguing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), it has recently been announced that the agency will remain leaderless following the withdrawal of the latest candidate for the top position. This news comes at the worst possible time, just when the aviation industry is ramping up its efforts in preparation for a its busiest summer in years.

President Joe Biden had previously selected Denver International Airport’s CEO, Phil Washington, to lead the FAA. However, concerns regarding Washington’s suitability for the role – including his relative lack of aviation experience and military background – were debated for nine months following his selection. On 26th March, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced Washington’s withdrawal from the running.

Phil Washington has recently withdrawn his candidacy from the position of head of the FAA. Photo: Hyoung Chang via Getty Images

Buttigieg held Republican criticisms of Washington responsible for the latter’s decision to withdraw, describing them as “partisan attacks and procedural obstruction”. For months, Republican Senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Roger Wicker (Mississippi) led an opposition campaign against Washington, citing as their reasoning his supposed lack of previous experience in the aviation industry.

The consequence of all this political wrangling means the FAA has now been without a head for about a year. This situation has been criticized by those who work closely with the agency. Senator Tammy Duckworth, leader of the subcommittee in charge of the FAA, has expressed her frustration with the delay and her desire to a see a candidate put up “as soon as possible.”

Washington’s withdrawal means the aviation industry will likely be waiting months more for a replacement FAA administrator. The selection process is long and arduous: it may take candidates months to gain a mandate to lead from the Senate committee that oversees the agency. Meanwhile, it’s up to Billy Nolen, acting administrator of the FAA and former pilot, to deal with its day-to-day.

However, without the official mandate to lead, Nolen will not be able to make the executive decisions the FAA desperately needs to be rescued from its current dire straits. Such a situation is causing deep pessimism for officials in the aviation industry. Valery Miftakhov, CEO of the hydrogen-electric aircraft developer ZeroAvia, said that without a leader, “we cannot expect to see the FAA take anything but small steps and it will be difficult to set the strategic direction”.

Nolen is, however, a possible candidate for the position of head of the FAA. He has the backing of Cruz, although this has not stood him in good stead with Senate Democrats, from whom he has yet to pick up any public support. The Texan Senator discussed the situation on his weekly podcast, explaining how he asked his staff, “Would it be crazy for me to suggest right now that they should withdraw Washington and nominate Nolen?”.

The FAA has been operating without executive leadership for a year. Photo: Andrew Harnik

Regardless, the one thing that that all in the aviation industry can agree on is that it is imperative that the slot is filled, and fast.

The FAA is in chaos, and has been for many months. It is currently beset by three main issues: frequent flight delays; safety concerns regarding the low number of air traffic control staff following a worrying number of near-misses on runways; and the upcoming summer surge in travel, estimated to succeed pre-pandemic levels.

In its current leaderless state, the FAA simply is not prepared to deal with such a combination of issues. Bold and decisive leadership is needed to make the necessary steps to tackle staffing shortages, keep up with new technologies, and prepare the industry for its upcoming seasoning surge – something that is impossible with only an acting administrator. Summer is coming, and the FAA is woefully unprepared.

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