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Top FAA safety official named as interim leader of agency

Billy Nolen will step into the job while the Biden administration continues its search for a permanent agency head

The Federal Aviation Administration building is seen in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Saturday that its top safety official has been named as the agency’s interim leader while the search continues for a permanent administrator.

Billy Nolen, the associate administrator for aviation safety, will step into the role when current administrator Steve Dickson steps down Thursday. The agency’s deputy administrator, Bradley Mims, will also taken on an expanded set of responsibilities focusing on airports and the agency’s workforce, the FAA said.

“Billy Nolen has extensive expertise in aviation and a deep understanding of the vital role the FAA plays in ensuring the safety of the traveling public,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “We are grateful to Steve for his service and to Billy and Brad for stepping up to lead the FAA during this critical time.”

Nolen will run the agency as it rebounds from the Boeing 737 Max crashes, which called its safety reputation into question, and as another investigation is underway into the crash of an older 737 model in China this week. The FAA is also in the midst of managing the rollout of 5G networks by wireless carriers, which it says could pose a risk to aviation safety, and a pandemic that has disrupted the aviation industry.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson to resign next month

Nolen has led the agency’s safety branch since January, overseeing a team of 7,600 employees. He previously worked for WestJet, a Canadian airline, as vice president for safety, security and quality. He has also worked at Australian carrier Qantas Airways, trade group Airlines for America and American Airlines, where he started as pilot in 1989.

Mims was named as the deputy FAA administrator early in the Biden administration. He previously served on the board of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and has a four-decade career in transportation.

Dickson announced in February that he would step down to spend more time with family after leading the agency since mid-2019. It will be up to President Biden to nominate a replacement, who will require confirmation by the Senate. The administration has not set out a timeline for the selection.

“Obviously that’s a very important position and it’s going to call for top leadership,” Buttigieg said this week.

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