Michael Whitaker, President Biden’s nominee to be Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), demonstrated his depth and breadth of aviation and managerial experience and commitment to meeting the challenges facing the agency during his nomination hearing today in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, chaired by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
"The American public deserves a safe, reliable and effective air transportation system,” Sen. Cantwell stated at the beginning of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour hearing. “Our economy depends on it. If confirmed, you will have the opportunity not only to lead the FAA but shape America’s future of aviation."
Senator Cantwell emphasized the next FAA Administrator will not only be tasked with building a skilled FAA workforce to meet the demands but also finishing the NextGen updates to modernize our National Airspace System (NAS) and following through on implementing important safety reforms.
“[L]ike every other workforce in the nation, we need the right people and we need them now. So, what can we do to better enable this FAA workforce?” Sen. Cantwell asked.
“I think assessing the workforce will be one of the first goals that I have within the agency and I would look forward to finding ways that we can increase ways to bring people into the agency. I think it's a tight workforce right now in aerospace, and we recruit in the same places that private industry does, and we've got to figure out a way to be competitive to bring the right talent into the agency,” Mr. Whitaker replied.
On completing the NextGen implementation to update our National Airspace System, Sen. Cantwell asked, “You’re kind of ‘Mr. NextGen.’ Could you explain where you think we are? What's been implemented? What advantages the program has given us? And what more advantages will it give us in aviation if we get that fully implemented under your watch?”
“NextGen is an often a misunderstood designation. It is a collection of programs to upgrade the National Airspace… it's a significant upgrade of the system,” Mr. Whitaker responded. “New technologies to make it easier to control traffic. It was originally designed as a 2010 to 2025 program, so 15 years. And it's largely completed.”
“I think many of us remember the step-down approaches where you would feel a descent and level, and a descent and level. And now it's a much more efficient descent, where you pull back the power and let the aircraft take its natural path down to the runway, much more fuel efficient and much quieter,” he continued.
Senator Cantwell highlighted Mr. Whitaker’s proven experience taking on serious challenges at FAA, including NextGen implementation, saying, “I think you were at the beginning of a very big transformation. And yet, we have more transformation to do. So, I think you're the guy with the experience of that NextGen implementation that gives you the depth and breadth of how big a challenge can be. Because certainly, it was a big challenge, moving our country onto a better system. So, we'll look forward to that full implementation.”
The FAA is currently implementing aircraft safety certification reforms from the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act (ACSAA), which Congress passed in response to the tragic 737 MAX crashes that claimed the lives of 346 people.
Senator Cantwell pressed Mr. Whitaker to commit to “building a resilient safety culture at the FAA” and to fully implement safety certification reforms at an agency that has changed since he last served there, asking, “What are your strategies for building a resilient safety culture at the FAA? And what do you think it takes at this point in time to have that safety culture?”
“[We] need to build a strong leadership team, make sure we have the right people in the right positions, and make sure they're permanent. And we need a strong bench.” Mr. Whitaker responded. “Safety culture doesn't create itself. And I think you have to constantly emphasize that it is our first mission, above all else, and everything has to be focused on that. We have to hold the line on pressure to reduce standards and make sure we're keeping the system as safe as possible.”
President Biden nominated Michael Whitaker on September 7, 2023, to be Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Michael Whitaker would bring more than 30 years of aviation experience, including serving as the Deputy FAA Administrator from 2013-2016. Whitaker has received wide support from the aviation community, including pilots and flight attendants, air traffic controllers, airlines, airports, manufacturers and machinists, past FAA and DOT leaders and the families of the ET302 crash victims. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, gave his endorsement and introduced Mr. Whitaker at the start of the hearing.