The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Trump puts personal pilot on shortlist to head FAA, agency faces biggest challenges in decades

The private Boeing 757 jet owned by then-candidate Donald Trump, pictured in 2016. The president has thrown his personal pilot into the mix to head the FAA.
The private Boeing 757 jet owned by then-candidate Donald Trump, pictured in 2016. The president has thrown his personal pilot into the mix to head the FAA. (Andrew Harrer)

In a documentary shot a few years before Donald Trump ran for president, his personal pilot, John Dunkin, is shown buffing a 24-karat-gold-plated seat-belt buckle on Trump’s Boeing 757, an aircraft described as “a sleek, narrow-bodied, long-legged beauty.”

In the video, Dunkin does it all. In addition to charting international flight plans and calmly guiding the plane from stop to stop, he oversees the delivery of new engine parts, consults on a floor mat replacement and blows off straggling flecks of interior dust with a fresh can of air.

“We get extremely detailed when it comes to this. We want to make this absolutely perfect, because Mr. Trump demands perfection,” Dunkin says in the film, part of the “Mighty Planes” series broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel and other outlets.

Now, a year into his presidency, administration officials say Trump has put his trusted flight guru “in the mix” to head the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the national airspace and flight safety systems covering hundreds of millions of fliers.

The move, first reported by Axios, has sparked a debate about Trump’s instinct to elevate business associates, old friends and family members into positions of vast responsibility.

While loyalty and a willingness to get your hands dirty with unglamorous details have launched numerous Washington careers, Trump’s critics say he has taken things too far. Walter M. Shaub Jr., a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, called Trump’s push for Dunkin “insane.”

But Trump, beginning in the first weeks of his administration, has spoken of Dunkin in reverent terms and endorsed him as an expert in the technical minutia of federal aviation policy. “My pilot, he’s a smart guy and knows what’s going on,” he told airline industry executives and others gathered at the White House last year.

The president also showed his hand on what he considered a possible job qualification for the FAA administrator. “I think it maybe would be good to have a pilot, like a really good pilot that knows what’s going on,” he said.

According to an administration official, other names on the shortlist for the top FAA job include Dan Elwell, the acting administrator and a former American Airlines pilot; and Bobby Sturgell, a former fighter pilot, naval Top Gun instructor and acting administrator under President George W. Bush who is now an aviation executive.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) also is being considered, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The next head of the FAA perhaps faces a more daunting challenge than anyone who has held the job over the past 60 years. If ever there was a time when the FAA chief could learn by doing, feeling his or her way, two things have unalterably changed that, aviation experts say.

With air traffic control proposal struggling in Senate, chief House proponent presses ahead

The first is the enormous modernization of the U.S. aviation system known as NextGen. Its price tag is about $36 billion; the federal government already has invested almost $3 billion, and the airlines are expected to add equipment that will cost $200,000 per plane.

Airlines have been reluctant to invest in NextGen, in large part because they doubt the timetable in which the FAA can deliver an incredibly complex network that has been best described as a system of systems rather than a single advance to modernization.

Both the inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office have been sharply critical of the FAA’s NextGen progress, and Congress has weighed in with criticism of its own.

In February 2017, Trump cited his pilot as the source of key insights into the NextGen effort.

“I have a pilot who’s a real expert, and he said, ‘Sir, the equipment they’re putting on is just the wrong stuff,’ ” Trump told the airline executives.

Later, the president endorsed with great fanfare a plan to spin more than 30,000 air traffic controllers and NextGen workers into a private nonprofit corporation.

But House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) wasn’t able to muscle the bill to a vote on the House floor in the face of bipartisan opposition in the Senate. Though the spinoff plan is in the White House budget proposal for 2019, it seems likely to suffer a similar fate.

The new FAA chief will need the deep trust of many on Capitol Hill, in industry and in the agency. Congress is deeply frustrated with what it perceives as a lack of progress. The airlines need reassurance that when they make expensive upgrades, the system will deliver, even as there are projected to be 296 million more commercial air travelers by 2037 than there were last year.

Critics often say today’s aviation system is based on World War II radar systems, but that is off the mark. Radar has been steadily developed in the past 70 years, but the air travel network still requires planes to fly from waypoint to waypoint in a pattern that wastes time and fuel.

The modernization — which too often is minimized as a GPS-based system — will allow planes to safely fly closer to one another, save fuel and time, get immediate weather updates, and communicate more effectively with other airplanes and with air traffic controllers.

Administration officials say Dunkin is more qualified for the FAA job than many people may realize.

“He managed the Trump empire’s fleet. There’s more than just being the personal pilot here,” one official said.

Previous FAA administrators have had a range of backgrounds, some with far-reaching experience in aviation and managing large organizations, such as John L. McLucas, an engineer and former secretary of the Air Force appointed FAA administrator by President Gerald Ford in the 1970s.

Jane Garvey was the first woman to hold the job. She was a teacher who later ran Boston’s Logan International Airport, headed the Federal Highway Administration as acting administrator and then was named by President Bill Clinton to the FAA position. She was at the helm during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.