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Biden taps Denver airport chief to be next FAA administrator

Phillip A. Washington ran transit systems in Denver and Los Angeles and was a member of Biden’s transition team

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President Biden on Wednesday nominated longtime transit official Phillip A. Washington to lead the Federal Aviation Administration — a move that could place an ally atop an agency wrestling with challenges such as certifying the safety of new aircraft and managing surging air travel amid the pandemic.

Washington, 64, who headed Biden’s transition team for transportation after the 2020 election, was named chief executive of Denver International Airport last summer, adding aviation to a career marked by experience in transit. He served as chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 2015 to 2021, holding the same role at the Denver Regional Transportation District before that.

His nomination comes as the FAA is under pressure from airlines and passengers to accommodate a growing number of air travelers amid rising numbers of flight delays and cancellations. The FAA has also been working to rebuild its image in the wake of two fatal Boeing Max jet crashes after investigations questioned whether the agency was too deferential to the aerospace giant in certifying the jet was safe to operate.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which will consider Washington’s nomination, said in a statement that she looks forward to “careful consideration of Mr. Washington’s nomination during the confirmation process.”

“Now more than ever, FAA must set the gold standard in aviation safety,” she said. “This starts from the top.”

Washington did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment. If confirmed, he would bring a different background to the job than recent FAA administrators, who often had extensive experience in the aviation industry or as a commercial pilot.

Stephen Dickson, who was appointed FAA administrator by President Donald Trump, flew for Delta Air Lines and served as an executive at the airline for several years. Daniel K. Elwell, who served as acting administrator before Dickson’s appointment, was an American Airlines pilot, as was Billy Nolen, the FAA’s current acting administrator.

Industry officials said Washington’s experience in the transportation industry and managing large bureaucracies would serve him well at the FAA.

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Kevin M. Burke, chief executive of Airports Council International — North America, said in a statement that as chief executive of Denver International, Washington demonstrated he was a “real innovator and problem-solver during one of the most difficult times our industry has faced.”

“His knowledge and experience are exactly what we need in an FAA administrator,” Burke said. “This will be particularly important as we continue efforts to implement the bipartisan infrastructure bill and begin work on the next FAA reauthorization.”

Nicholas E. Calio, president and chief executive of Airlines for America, the airline industry’s leading trade group, said in a statement the organization “will continue to collaborate with the agency to ensure that commercial aviation remains the safest mode of transportation in the world especially as we emerge from the pandemic.”

Todd Hauptli, chief executive of the American Association of Airport Executives, called Washington an “incisive, thoughtful, deliberate and a gifted, intentional leader.” Washington also received praise from the largest airline employees union, the Transport Workers Union of America, which said he has been “one of the strongest voices for creating and sustaining high-quality jobs with government investment — including when transitioning to new technologies.”

As head of the Los Angeles Metro system, Washington oversaw 11,000 employees and managed a budget of more than $8 billion, according to the White House. Los Angeles’s system transported 1.2 million boarding passengers daily using a fleet of 2,200 buses and six rail lines. The FAA has a workforce of 45,000 and a $17.5 billion budget.

Washington is a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army, where he held the rank of command sergeant major. He retired from active duty and was awarded the Defense Superior Service Medal, given to members of the military who “rendered superior meritorious service in a position of significant responsibility,” according to the Department of Defense.

Washington grew up on Chicago’s South Side and has a bachelor’s degree in business from Columbia College, and a master’s in management from Webster University.

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If confirmed, he would replace Nolen, who was tapped to serve as acting FAA administrator following the departure of Dickson, who announced in February he was stepping down to spend more time with his family.