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Senate committee delays vote on Biden’s choice to lead FAA

The delay comes as Republican senators have argued that Phillip Washington is unqualified

Phillip Washington, President Biden's nominee to become administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on March 1. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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A Senate committee on Wednesday delayed its scheduled vote on the nomination of airport and transit executive Phillip Washington to lead the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We are moving that to a future date, pending information that members have been seeking,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Washington, who was nominated by President Biden in July, is chief executive of Denver International Airport and headed Biden’s transition team for transportation after the 2020 election. Republican senators argue that Washington is unqualified, while unions representing 75,000 flight attendants, and other allies in aviation, back his nomination.

The political disagreement comes as the FAA has been without a confirmed leader for a year amid high-profile near misses between aircraft and a January database meltdown that grounded the nation’s flights.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) compared Washington unfavorably with the Biden administration’s acting FAA administrator, Billy Nolen, a pilot and safety expert, repeating pronouncements that Republicans would readily support Nolen as the nominee.

“Both Mr. Washington and Mr. Nolen are African American. The difference is Mr. Nolen has the experience we should require in that position,” Cruz said.

After announcing the delay in the vote, Cantwell sought to move on to other matters, including a rail safety hearing tied to the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

“We will have this debate in the future. Mr. Washington is qualified,” Cantwell said. “He has the support of other former heads of the FAA who also were not pilots. And they did very good jobs and were respected.”

The White House on Wednesday reiterated its backing of Washington, saying in a statement that “the FAA needs a confirmed Administrator, and the President’s nominee, Phil Washington, has the right qualifications and experience for this role.”

Washington has said his priorities would include enhancing oversight of the FAA’s aircraft certification process after the crashes of Boeing jetliners in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019. The planes were certified safe by the FAA, despite what crash and congressional investigators called a flawed automated flight-control system that overpowered pilots, killing 346 people.

FAA launches safety ‘call to action’ after recent airport near-misses

Washington wrote in responses submitted to the committee earlier this year that he would push the implementation of FAA oversight legislation that Congress passed in 2020.

On Monday, eight relatives of passengers killed in the Ethiopia crash called on senators to support Washington’s nomination.

“More work needs to be done,” including increasing individual accountability and transparency at the FAA, they wrote in a letter to committee leaders. “Mr. Washington’s no nonsense leadership, decision-making and performance from his military service and his post-military service give us confidence that he can and will spur a transformative safety and quality change in the very large and dysfunctional FAA.”

Washington also said he would tackle the agency’s technology modernization efforts, exemplified by a failed pilot-alert system that shut down the nation’s airspace in January, as well as stalled NextGen technology systems meant to address the safety and efficiency of the nation’s airspace.

Attempting to sink Washington’s nomination, GOP senators have sought to tie him to local political issues in California, where he headed the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 2015 to 2021, and assailed his focus on diversifying the ranks of transportation officials and contractors, including at Denver International.

GOP senators question Biden’s FAA nominee on experience amid agency challenges

“Are airports racist? And is the FAA racist?” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked Washington at his March 1 nomination hearing.

“I don’t believe they are,” Washington said.

Washington and his supporters have cited his 24 years of Army service as a key leadership credential. He worked on NATO logistics and information systems before retiring in 2000 as a command sergeant major, the highest noncommissioned military rank.

But Cruz has said Washington’s time in the military would force him to face an extra vote in the GOP-controlled House, where Republicans say they would block his nomination.

At issue is a Republican assertion that Washington is not a “civilian,” which the FAA administrator must be under federal law. Cruz pointed to previous instances in which Congress granted waivers for retired military personnel to serve at the agency.

But the Transportation Department’s general counsel, John Putnam, responded that those previous waivers were unnecessary. Congress could have imposed restrictions on administrator nominees based on prior military service, just as it did for nominees for deputy administrator, Putnam said, but Congress did not do so. Washington “fits the plain and widely understood meaning” of the word “civilian,” he said.

During Washington’s hearing earlier this month, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) said she had concerns about Washington’s qualifications. But in recent weeks, top airport officials in Nevada, and others in aviation, have backed his nomination, and Rosen is now supportive, according to a Democratic aide.

Also Wednesday, the FAA issued a nonbinding safety alert, citing six serious runway incidents since January 2023, including near misses in Austin and New York. It follows a safety summit Nolen oversaw last week.

The alert notes the dangers of “extraneous communication” between flight attendants and pilots during takeoff and other key moments, and emphasizes the need for crews to “control workload and reduce distractions.” It calls on pilots, operations executives and others to redouble their emphasis on safety and consider changes to procedures, training and the ways they manage risk.