ICYMI: The FAA needs an experienced aviation leader, not a political partisan

March 22, 2023

Washington, D.C. – On Wednesday, March 22, 2023, Ranking Member of the Commerce Committee, Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Commerce Committee member and pilot, Senator Ted Budd (R-North Carolina), published a joint op-ed in the Washington Examiner calling on President Biden to withdraw his Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator nominee, Phil Washington.

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) held an emergency safety summit after a series of disturbing near collisions of planes at airports across the country. These close-call incidents, which could have been disastrous, followed the January malfunction of the FAA’s NOTAM safety system that led to the first nationwide grounding of aircraft since the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks.

These serious safety challenges at the FAA are stark reminders of why it's so important for the head of the agency to have extensive aviation experience, especially in aviation safety. The FAA, on an average day, is responsible for ensuring safe air travel for more than 45,000 flights and nearly 3 million airline passengers. With the stakes so high, it's irresponsible to entrust the role of protecting millions of Americans who fly with a person who needs on-the-job training. Yet, that's exactly what we have with President Joe Biden's nominee to serve as FAA administrator, Phil Washington.

Little of Washington’s career has touched aviation. After serving in the military, Washington worked as a transit executive in Denver and Los Angeles, dealing with train and bus systems. Less than two years ago, he became CEO of Denver International Airport, a job that primarily involves overseeing the airport’s shopping, dining, parking, and buildings —- not aviation matters. Notably, in this role, he has neither significant involvement with the airport’s flight operations nor does he oversee air traffic controllers, pilots, and aircraft.

Washington's recent hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee confirmed what's abundantly clear from his resume: he lacks the extensive aviation experience needed to lead the FAA. At his hearing, he was unable to answer basic aviation questions we asked him, including safety questions about aircraft certification, pilot licensing, and airports.

It's no mystery why. Unlike other FAA administrators, he does not have decades of aviation experience. Washington has never flown a plane, never worked for an airline, and never worked for a company that manufactures or maintains aircraft. But what he does have are political connections. He donated to the Biden campaign, co-chaired its policy committee on infrastructure, and led the Biden administration’s transition team for the Department of Transportation. It’s unacceptable that Biden is playing politics with the flying public's safety by treating the head of the FAA as a patronage job.

Washington’s lack of extensive aviation experience has caused widespread concern about his nomination. At his Senate hearing, multiple Democratic senators questioned his qualifications to lead the FAA. State and local aviation groups all over the country, including pilot groups, oppose his nomination. One of them, the Montana Pilots Association, has said that he is “singularly unqualified to serve as FAA Administrator.” Last week, a bicameral group of members of Congress who are pilots, including former military pilots, urged Biden to withdraw Washington’s nomination because he is “woefully unqualified to fill this role.”

Not only is Washington unqualified, but he’s also apparently under investigation. He is embroiled in an ongoing criminal public corruption probe that is being led by the Democratic attorney general of California. The probe concerns a politically-connected contracting scheme from Washington’s time leading the Los Angeles Metro. Washington has been named in not one but two search warrants in the probe, with the most recent having been issued just last September. It's inexplicable that President Joe Biden has picked an FAA nominee who is materially involved in an ongoing criminal investigation.

The safety challenges and responsibilities of the FAA are far too important to have anyone other than a highly experienced aviation expert at the helm. Fortunately, the FAA is currently run by acting Administrator Billy Nolen, who has decades of aviation experience. He’s worked as a pilot, is a seasoned aviation safety executive, and has been in leadership roles at the FAA. By all accounts, Nolen, who was appointed by the Biden administration, has the confidence of FAA employees and the aviation sector.

Biden should withdraw Washington’s name and instead select a nominee, like Nolen, with the necessary aviation experience to lead the agency responsible for keeping the American people safe when they fly. A well-qualified nominee such as Nolen would likely receive widespread bipartisan support and earn a quick confirmation in the Senate. Most importantly, the flying public would be safer and better off.

Mr. Ted Cruz is a U.S. senator for Texas and the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee. Mr. Ted Budd is a U.S. senator for North Carolina and a pilot.