Biden Nominates Whitaker to Head FAA
September 8, 2023|Jeff Davis
After months of speculation and waiting, the White House made it official yesterday: President Biden has nominated Michael Whitaker to be the next Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. (The Wall Street Journal reported it was coming two full months ago.)
Biden’s last nominee for the post, Phil Washington, withdrew his name from consideration almost six months ago after getting a lot of negative feedback from Republicans (and one or two Democrats) on the grounds that he did not have enough aviation safety experience to carry out the job.
- February 16, 2022 – FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson announces his intent to resign.
- March 31, 2022 – Dickson’s resignation becomes official.
- July 7, 2022 – President Biden announces his intent to nominate Phil Washington.
- July 11, 2022 – The White House formally transmits Washington’s nomination papers to the Senate.
- September 14, 2022 – While waiting for a hearing, Washington is dragged into the middle of a political dispute between a Los Angeles County Supervisor and the County Sheriff, under the guise of a corruption investigation, which takes months to untangle.
- March 1, 2023 – The Senate Commerce Committee finally holds a hearing on Washington’s nomination.
- March 22, 2023 – The Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote on Washington’s nomination but abruptly postpones the meeting after it becomes clear they are at least one vote short.
- March 24, 2023 – Washington asks President Biden to withdraw his nomination, and Biden agrees.
- September 7, 2022 – The White House announces, and Biden nominates, Michael Whitaker to the post.
Whitaker has a broad and deep background in aviation, including a three-year stint from 2013-2016 as Deputy FAA Administrator under President Obama and Administrator Mike Huerta.
Whitaker came to aviation as a lawyer, moving from a private law firm to Trans World Airlines in 1991, as an assistant counsel in the international and regulatory affairs office. After three years, he got a better offer from United Airlines, where he worked in a similar department for 14 years, culminating as Senior Vice President, Alliances, International and Regulatory Affairs, helping run the Star Alliance and negotiating expansions to United’s international routes.
He then went truly global in 2009, becoming Group CEO of the Travel, Technology, and General Aviation Services portion of the largest aviation conglomerate in India (InterGlobe Enterprises Limited, whose primary business is the IndiGo airline, not to be confused with the Indianapolis mass transit system, IndyGo).
He joined the FAA in June 2013 and, unusually, studied and got his private pilot’s license while on the job. As Deputy Administrator, he also served as Chief NextGen Officer, running the (seemingly endless) air traffic control equipment modernization effort, especially ADS-B conversion.
After three years at the FAA, he resigned and hung out his own shingle as a consultant for almost four years before joining Hyundai Motor Group’s Air Mobility Division, which has since had a name change to Supernal. He started as Global Head of Policy and rose earlier this year to be Chief Operating Officer as Supernal tries to develop electric short-range VTOL aircraft.
After nominating Phil Washington last year, the White House seemed unprepared for GOP pushback against the nomination. (And everybody was unprepared for Washington getting dragged into the absurd blue-on-blue Villanueva-Kuehl extravaganza, with Los Angeles County not being big enough for the two of them.)
This time, the White House is more active. At the end of the day yesterday, their press office released a long list of quotes from industry figures in support of Whitaker’s nomination – three airlines (and three air carrier trade associations), five labor unions (plus TTD), both airport trade associations, and various aerospace manufacturing interests.
The union support is key because there was some question about it, dating back to possibly bruised feelings from Whitaker’s role in the 2016 air traffic controller contract renegotiation talks. Six weeks go, when the FAA named a career pro-labor activist attorney as “Senior Labor Policy Advisor” to the FAA Administrator, the move was widely interpreted as a preemptive quid pro quo for getting labor to support a Whitaker nomination.
The White House quote list included one from Senate Commerce Committee chairman Maria Cantwell (D-WA): “The United States must be the global standard in aviation safety. From building a well-trained workforce to addressing critical safety concerns to modernizing the national airspace system, there is no shortage of issues before the FAA. Mr. Whitaker will use his substantial aviation experience and knowledge to meet these challenges. I look forward to working with him and his strong leadership at the agency.”
But committee Republicans are still not on board – not yet, at least. Ranking minority member Ted Cruz (R-TX) issued this statement: “The Biden administration has repeatedly nominated to key positions unqualified and radical activists who were then sensibly rejected by both Democrat and Republican senators. In June, I urged President Biden to put the flying public first and immediately name a ‘serious and well-qualified person with substantial aviation experience’ to serve as FAA administrator. After several near-misses, chronic air traffic controller staffing shortages, and ongoing problems with implementing new technology at the FAA, we must carefully evaluate Mike Whitaker’s qualifications, experience, and temperament to determine whether he is the right person to lead the agency at this critical juncture.”
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