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White House nominee to lead the FAA glides through a Senate committee vote

Michael Whitaker, nominee to be the next administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill October 4, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer
/
Getty Images
Michael Whitaker, nominee to be the next administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Capitol Hill October 4, 2023 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON — It's been more than 18 months since the Federal Aviation Administration has had a Senate-confirmed leader at the controls.

Michael Whitaker, the White House's pick to head the agency, took a crucial step toward changing that on Wednesday.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation voted unanimously to approve Whitaker's nomination to be the next FAA administrator. His nomination now heads to the full Senate for confirmation.

The vote comes after a series of close calls on runways at major airports across the country. There have been no major U.S. plane crashes since 2009. But aviation experts say the U.S. air travel system is showing troubling signs of stress, as it strains to keep up with a post-pandemic rebound in air travel.

"If confirmed, my priority will be the safety of the flying public," Whitaker said at a committee hearing earlier this month. "They have put their trust in the FAA to keep aviation the safest way to travel. And the world has looked to us for decades as the gold standard."

The gold standard is looking a bit tarnished after a year of close calls. In January, Delta and American planes nearly collided on a runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

"Delta 1943 cancel takeoff clearance!," an unidentified air traffic controller shouted, according to audio from LiveATC.net.

The next month, there was another close call on a foggy morning at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas, when a FedEx plane came within 100 feet of landing on a Southwest jet that had been told to takeoff on the same runway.

"I appreciate Mr. Whitaker's commitment to independent leadership, recruiting new talent and building a strong safety culture at the FAA," said Democrat Maria Cantwell, the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, moments before Wednesday's vote.

The FAA has more than 11,000 air traffic controllers working today. But that's roughly 3,000 fewer than it needs to meet its goals. Whitaker said he'd try to rebuild that workforce quickly.

"I would view my role as administrator, as chief recruitment officer, certainly for FAA, but also for the industry," he said at the hearing earlier this month.

Whitaker had a long career as an airline executive at TWA and United. He also served as deputy administrator at the FAA during the Obama administration. Whitaker is currently the chief operating officer of Supernal, a Hyundai Motor Group company that's designing an advanced air mobility vehicle, sometimes called an "air taxi."

His nomination has gotten a warmer welcome on Capitol Hill than President Biden's previous nominee, Phillip Washington, the head of Denver International Airport. Washington withdrew from consideration after staunch opposition from Republicans, including Ted Cruz of Texas, the committee's ranking member.

Cruz ultimately voted to advance Whitaker's nomination.

"His extensive aviation experience makes him well-suited to lead our nation's largest transportation safety agency," Cruz said. "It is unfortunate that the president took so long to heed my advice and the advice of many on this committee to nominate someone with actual aviation experience and aviation safety experience."

Whitaker's nomination has gotten wide support from the airline industry and its biggest unions, as well as his former boss at the FAA.

"Mike was completely unflappable, no matter what got thrown at us," said Michael Huerta, who served as FAA administrator during the Obama and Trump administrations. He says Whitaker is the right person to lead the FAA at a challenging moment. Though Huerta also warns that it will take time to rebuild the ranks of air traffic controllers.

"You can't just hire people and expect them to be able to do the jobs. There's a very extended training program," Huerta said in an interview. "Meanwhile, air traffic has come back, I think, much more rapidly than anyone was expecting."

The shortage of air traffic controllers is just one of the challenges facing the FAA. Whitaker spoke to NPR's Morning Edition in January after a problem with an FAA notification system grounded planes nationwide. In that interview, Whitaker said the FAA needs a more stable funding stream.

"They definitely need new investment. They need new technology," Whitaker said in January, before he was nominated for the top job at the FAA.

"Congress passes authorizations. They pass budgets. Those are inconsistent. They're not predictable. They're short-term. And then you have things like government shutdowns that interfere with the process," he said.

The FAA's current five-year authorization is set to expire in December.

Huerta, the former FAA administrator, said it would be helpful to have a Senate-confirmed person in the job.

"It is different in terms of how you're viewed by both inside the agency and within the industry," Huerta said. "Are you going to be there for the long haul?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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