Federal Aviation Administration head Randy Babbitt was placed on administrative leave and appeared at risk of losing his job Monday after being arrested on a drunken-driving charge Saturday night in Fairfax City.
Transportation Department officials were “in discussions with legal counsel about Administrator Babbitt’s employment status” after being taken by surprise when Fairfax City police released news of the arrest Monday morning, according to a statement.
Babbitt’s boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a passionate safety advocate who has embraced campaigns against drunken driving, had no immediate public comment. LaHood was meeting with senior officials to discuss Babbitt’s future with the FAA. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama “didn’t have a particular reaction” to the news and learned of it about the same time as other officials did.
Babbitt’s arrest presented a new twist for an agency struggling to right itself to tackle the most ambitious project in aviation history — a $40 billion guidance system based on the Global Positioning System — after a series of embarrassing stumbles.
The most public of them were incidents in which air traffic controllers were caught sleeping on the job, more than once requiring pilots to land jetliners virtually on their own. Another was a mistake by a controller who allowed first lady Michelle Obama’s plane to stray too close to a military plane on approach to Andrews Air Force Base.
The same controller was responsible for an earlier near-collision near Washington involving a plane carrying Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), underscoring a significant increase in the number of mistakes by controllers nationwide.
Babbitt, 65, was pulled over about 10:30 p.m. Saturday by an officer who saw him driving alone on the wrong side of the road on Old Lee Highway, a four-lane thoroughfare about nine miles from his Reston home, police said.
He was cooperative and was released without bail from the Adult Detention Center, authorities said. Police did not release Babbitt’s blood alcohol level, but .08 is the threshold to bring charges of driving while intoxicated in Virginia. Babbitt could not be reached for comment Monday. He is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 2.
Carney said Babbitt requested a leave of absence and “LaHood accepted that request. ”
Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, an area nonprofit group that fights drunken driving, cited the first admonition in the FAA mission statement — “safety is our passion” — in rebuking Babbitt’s alleged conduct.
“If found guilty, it’s incongruous and criminal,” Erickson said. “What distinguishes this case is that it involved the head of a federal transportation safety agency. Otherwise it is, unfortunately, undistinguished amongst the nearly 16,000 annual DUI arrests in the Washington area every year.”
Erickson said the most common DUI arrest is that of a man driving at night on a weekend.
Jan Withers, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said drunk drivers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law without regard to their status. “We get disappointed when our leaders do something like this,” Withers said.
The reins of the FAA will fall, at least temporarily, into the hands of a deputy who joined the agency 16 months ago with ample transportation experience but very little of it in aviation. Michael P. Huerta also assumed responsibility for developing the Next Generation Air Transportation System when a key FAA official resigned this spring after several air traffic controllers were caught sleeping on the job.
The other key figure at the FAA, who supervises 35,000 controllers and other personnel, is David J. Grizzle, a lawyer with decades of experience providing marketing and legal counsel to aviation but without professional experience in the cockpit or the control tower.
In contrast, Babbitt logged 25 years as a pilot for Eastern Air Lines before heading the pilots association and working as a consultant. He began a five-year term as FAA administrator in June 2009 after being appointed by Obama.
“He’s well respected by the airline industry, the unions like him, the pilots like him and he has lots of technical expertise,” said an airline industry expert who asked not to be identified so that he could speak freely. “It’s going to raise questions about leadership at the FAA.”
In addition to the controversy over sleeping controllers, the FAA also has experienced a significant increase in the number of potentially dangerous errors by controllers and been hamstrung by Congress’s inability to reach agreement on long-term funding that would stabilize the agency. The 22nd short-term funding extension will expire Jan. 31.
Airlines have been hesitant to invest billions of dollars of their own money in the new guidance system, known as NextGen, until the federal funding commitment is there to back up Babbitt’s promises that the FAA will meet its goals on time.
If Babbitt’s career is put in jeopardy by the arrest, he won’t be the first public official to face trouble after a drunken-driving arrest. Former House member Vito J. Fossella (N.Y.), once a rising star in the Republican Party, spent time in the Alexandria Detention Center in 2009 after pleading guilty to drunken-driving charges.
The same year, Alexandria Police Chief David P. Baker retired three days after he was arrested for driving under the influence. His city-issued Ford Explorer collided with another vehicle in Arlington County, and he failed a series of sobriety tests. Baker pleaded guilty and served five days in the Arlington County jail.
Alexandria School Superintendent Rebecca L. Perry pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated in 2004 and received a 30-day suspended jail sentence. Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in 2008 and received unsupervised probation. In 1986, Robert Burford, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, pleaded no contest to a reduced charge in Arlington after a DUI arrest on Interstate 395.
Staff writers David Nakamura and Ed O’Keefe and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.