Democrats: Phil Washington is Ready to Lead Our Nation’s Aviation Safety Agency

March 1, 2023

U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, today delivered the following opening statement during the nomination hearing for Phil Washington, President Biden’s choice to serve as the next administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration. Introductory remarks from Colorado Senators John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are also below.


Senator Maria Cantwell’s opening remarks: VIDEO

Good morning. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will come to order. This morning we are having a hearing on the nomination of Phil Washington to be Administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Mr. Washington, welcome. Congratulations on your nomination and I know, I think at least one or two of our colleagues want to be here be here as well to do an introduction. We’re very fortunate to have them and we will call on them in a minute.

But as we are expecting the arrival of our Ranking Member, I’m going to go ahead and start my opening statement in hopes that we can keep going this morning.

Today the Commerce Committee is meeting to consider the nomination of Phil Washington to be Administrator of the FAA. The safety mission of the FAA starts at the top with the Administrator and I hope to hear from you, Mr. Washington, about your vision for making sure that the FAA is the gold standard in aviation safety.

Three years ago, Congress spoke clearly on needed reforms in the aircraft certification process and the FAA safety oversight. I worked with my colleague, Senator Wicker, who was the Chair of the Committee at that time on that important legislation.

Today, we need a to clear commitment that this legislation will be is fully implemented, and that these reforms -- ensuring designee oversight, mandating Safety Management Systems, and holding manufacturers accountable -- are all adhered to.

I want to especially thank the families of the 737 MAX tragedies for their important role in helping us craft and pass this landmark legislation. It is an important reminder that the FAA’s leadership mandates extend internationally as well.

The United States must be a strong safety voice at ICAO, we must raise the global safety bar on issues like pilot training and human factors. And the FAA Administrator must also lead a large, complex organization. The safety agency has over 45,000 employees across different lines of business, day in and day out, these workers answer the call and are engaged in the continuous job of safety oversight.

We also need strong leadership at the FAA to continue the FAA reauthorization bill this year. The administration must deal with a myriad of new challenges presented by 21st century technology, Advanced Air Mobility platforms, and manufacturing. We also must build up our National Airspace System, which is already the world’s busiest and most complex with next generation technology and operational redundancies.

In addition, the aviation future must be sustainable. That means developing the capacity and infrastructure for sustainable aviation fuel and the meeting our 2050 targets for net zero carbon emissions.

So Mr. Washington, you're here today to explain how you and your leadership can meet that vision and those vital requirements of the FAA. I'm pleased that our colleagues Senator Bennett and Senator Hickenlooper, member of this committee, will be here to also say a few words on your behalf.

But let me just say, you represent a great career that we much appreciate. Mr. Washington is a 24 year veteran of the U.S. Army where he rose to the rank of Command Sergeant Major, the highest noncommissioned officer rank an enlisted soldier can achieve and he would be the first African American confirmed to serve as the FAA administrator.

This would be a landmark achievement, and there has never been an FAA administrator nominee that has come from the enlisted ranks. The U.S. Army taught Mr. Washington how to get things done and get them done right. And indeed, the Department of Defense awarded him the prestigious Defense Superior Service Medal for exceptional service to the country.

And after military retirement in 2000, Mr. Washington joined the Denver Regional District RTD and earned his way to the top of that transit agency with an annual ridership of over 40 million. In Denver, Mr. Washington implemented the nation's first and only 2.2 billion transit public-private partnership, called the Eagle P3 project, on time, and expanding multimodal transit regions, and in 2015, was named CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Authority.

In Los Angeles, H he oversaw a rail and bus network that transports 1.2 million passengers annually and managed a budget of $9 billion and oversaw 10,000 employees. He was also key and leading an expansion of LA Metro, managing approximately $20 billion in infrastructure and new rail connections between the Los Angeles International Airport.

Then in 2021, he became CEO of Denver International Airport, the third busiest airport in the world. Now for my Colorado colleagues, I'm not doubting, but I did have to look that up, and sure enough, yes, it's true.

You move a lot of people through that airport. So, he leads 35,000 employees and manages a $1.3 billion operating budget and under his watch, he set an all-time passenger traffic record, nearly 70 million passengers traveled through its terminals, up about 18 percent over 2021 and surpassing pre-COVID numbers.

So organizations like the American Public Transport Association, Airports Council International, National Business Aviation Administration, and many other organizations, including many labor organizations who also support your nomination.

So, again, congratulations. Thank you for being here and I look forward to having a chance to discuss with you the future of the FAA.

I'll turn to my colleague, the Ranking Member, Senator Cruz, for his opening statement.




Senator John Hickenlooper’s introduction remarks: VIDEO

Thank you, Madam Chair. We need an FAA administrator who is Senate-confirmed, but also who knows how to get things done. An administrator who can manage the complex bureaucracy at FAA, and prepare it for the realities of modern air travel today. Someone who can give us confidence the next time we get on a flight, someone who will reassure us that we'll get where we're going safely, and not have to think about how everything works again. That's Phil Washington.

Phil came from humble beginnings. As the Madam Chair mentioned, [he] served 24 years in the Army, achieved the rank of Command Sergeant Major, the highest rank for enlisted servicemen. Command Sergeant Majors are the people that get things done by organizing, motivating their troops, delivering on the mission and holding people accountable. He was stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado, the beginning of his relationship with Colorado.

Our veterans are renowned for their discipline, their leadership, their courage, their dedication to service. Phil embodies all these traits and more. When he led Metro Denver's Regional Transportation District, which is by far the largest transit agency in the state, he put our city's transit system back on track. He came in when the flagship Fast Track program was over budget, was behind schedule, beset by problems and complications. When he left three-quarters was completed or under construction.

He next took the helm of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the third-largest transit system in the country, serving over 220 million passengers annually. Again, another multi-billion dollar expansion, which was beset by challenges and he got that sorted out.

He's now the CEO of Denver International Airport for the last couple years. The third-busiest airport in the world as the madam chair pointed out, he has transformed the airport’s once aging infrastructure.

The Great Hall project is going to expand the DIA’s terminal capacity from 70 million passengers a year to 100 million passengers a year. His program Vision 100 will support that transition by the end of this decade. Phil recognizes growth is more than just expanding terminals and modernizing runways. He's launched DIA’s Center of Equity and Excellence in aviation. It’s a first of its kind training facility to make sure we can grow a diverse workforce and a small business pipeline in aviation that does deliver on the combined mission of transportation at the safest possible levels. He's not hesitated to act decisively again and again when a crisis strikes. We had the winter storms of 2022 that devastated air travel all across the country, damaged our economy. He immediately launched a rigorous after action review between DIA and its major airline partners. This after action review will identify the causes to the airline disruption catastrophe and prevent future incidents from happening again. That's the kind of decisive action that we need to see in the FAA.

Phil fits the mold of several past administrators. There have been questions raised as to previous administrators. Jane Garvey, who was the administrator under the President Clinton came from the Massachusetts Department of Public Works and led Boston's Logan Airport. Marion Blakey, who served in the Bush administration, was Administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration before coming to the FAA. Michael Huerta oversaw the Ports of New York City in San Francisco and had a couple of senior roles within Department of Transportation before coming to lead the FAA.

But I think Phil breaks the mold of past FAA administrators in important ways. He's not an airline industry insider using this role as a position for the industry to be policing itself. The challenges facing FAA are those of managing a large complex bureaucracy badly in need of modernization. And certainly in that respect, he's no novice. He's the CEO of the third-busiest airport in the world, as we've said, manages a workforce roughly of 35,000 employees compared to 45,000 at FAA, so roughly the same size. And he took the role of a big expansion project that was running into budget challenges, scheduling challenges before he came along, and he got back on track. And this is not to mention his experience in the army where he honed his discipline and leadership skills and was recognized for it.

He's built a reputation of coming into organizations filled with challenges and successfully transforming them into successes. He takes on the big complex problems and gets results. This is the kind of person we want in our federal management system. It is for those reasons, I urge this committee to be thoughtful and objectively look at Phil's record and what it shows. He's the right man and nominated at the right time to lead this critical agency. I look forward to seeing where he can lead the FAA with his bold vision for the future. Thank you.



Senator Michael Bennet’s introduction remarks: VIDEO

Thank you, Chair Cantwell for having me, and Ranking Member Cruz for the opportunity to introduce Phil Washington. It’s a privilege to be here with my colleague, John Hickenlooper.

Phil's obviously President Biden's nominee to lead the Federal Aviation Administration. John Hickenlooper and I have known Phil for almost 20 years, going back to the days when John was Mayor of Denver, and he graciously endured me as his Chief of Staff. We both worked closely together with Phil, who had recently joined Colorado's Regional Transportation District after an exceptional career that took him from his youth in a housing project on the Southside of Chicago to the rank of Command Sergeant after 24 years in the U.S. Army.

I believe Phil's son, Phil Washington Jr., is with us this morning. Thank him for making the trip to Washington. Thanks for sharing your dad with us so he can continue to serve Colorado and the country.

Senator Hickenlooper has already offered an excellent overview of Phil's experience in Colorado's Regional Transportation District, LA County's Transportation Authority, and Denver's International Airport. So instead of taking you through that again, I want to share my observations about Phil's specific qualifications to lead the FAA at this critical juncture for the agency.

As this Committee appreciates more than most, the FAA has long set the global standard for airline safety. But recent incidents have shaken the public's confidence and undermined our global leadership.

This is the perfect time for a leader like Phil Washington, who would bring a proven record for delivering results. He turned around our RTD. He turned around transit in LA County. He's driving overdue change at DIA and I have no doubt he would do the same at the FAA.

I understand some members of this Committee have argued Phil lacks direct experience in aviation. We just heard that argument. I'm surprised by that because as we've heard, he currently is running the third busiest airport on planet earth. He literally spends every day liaising with 25 airlines, managing over 30,000 employees, and navigating local, state, and federal aviation policy. He's spearheading the most ambitious overhaul of that third busiest airport at DIA since Colorado first built the airport almost 30 years ago. 

I point out to the chairwoman that we're very proud that DIA is the youngest airport in America, but it's 30 years old, we need to build airports in this country again. Phil could help us with that too, easily leading an $800 million renovation to the Main Hall, building 39 New gates, designing seven the runway, and revamping the airport's entire baggage system, all with the traveling public continuing to make its way through the airport.

Phil was also instrumental in developing Vision 100, a strategic plan for DIA to prepare the airport to process 100 million passengers a year through an expanded workforce infrastructure and air service network.

So despite suggestions to the contrary, Phil's experience is comparable to previous FAA nominees like Jane Garvey and Michael Huerta whom John mentioned, both of whom the Senate confirmed with a strong bipartisan support.

Instead of focusing on Phil's obvious qualifications, there's been an attempt in recent months to distract from his record and frankly, impugn his character. And I won't dignify that effort in my remarks, I will just say that the past 20 years have left me only with the highest regard for Phil's integrity and leadership. That's what the people of Denver believe about Phil and the people of Colorado do as well.

And you don't have to take my word for it. The Mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock, is at the hearing. Before the Mayor asked Phil to lead DIA, he conducted a thorough background check. Phil not only cleared that review, the Denver City Council confirmed him unanimously. Senator, they don't agree on anything, by the way, but they agreed on Phil. Senator Hickenlooper and I can tell you from experience that you don't get a lot of unanimous votes, as I said, from the City Council, and I see no reason why Phil's historic nomination shouldn't receive a unanimous vote from this Committee. Any fair assessment of his career and of his character would see a nominee with integrity, drive, and a record of results at every institution he's led. You would make an outstanding administrator for the FAA and I wholeheartedly endorse his nomination.