Phil Washington Nominated to Run FAA

As predicted in the Seattle Times on June 9, President Biden on July 6 announced that he has selected Phil Washington, the head of the Denver International Airport, to be his nominee to serve a five-year term as Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Biden formally sent the nomination to the Senate on July 11, where it was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

The next steps are for Washington to pay as many in-person visits to Commerce Committee members as possible as soon as possible, while also filling out the committee’s biographical questionnaire (which asks things like “list every article or paper you have ever written in your life” as well as every speech, every political donation, every award received, etc.). The intent is for the Commerce Committee to hold a hearing on Washington’s nomination before the Senate adjourns for the August recess on August 5.

(It might be just inside the outer edge of possibility for a hearing and a committee vote to take place by August 5, but the committee usually leaves at least one week after a hearing for the nominee to return questions in writing that they didn’t have the time to delve into in the hearing, before holding the final committee vote. And the clock is ticking fast for holding a hearing in July).

For past examples of how long this kind of thing takes, and what the questionnaires and Q4R’S look like, see this page on the Commerce Committee website.

Washington’s official nomination prompted some public comments, like these:

  • Commerce chairman Maria Cantwell (D-WA): “America’s aviation industry is facing important challenges in a competitive global marketplace. Now more than ever, FAA must set the gold standard in aviation safety. This starts from the top. I expect and will require strong leadership from the next FAA Administrator. I look forward to careful consideration of Mr. Washington’s nomination during the confirmation process.”
  • Commerce ranking member Roger Wicker (R-MS): “The FAA has lacked a permanent leader for far too long. While I am pleased that the White House finally has prioritized this vacancy and submitted a nominee for Senate vetting, I am skeptical because of the nominee’s lack of experience in aviation. This position requires extensive knowledge of the industry in order to ensure the safety and efficiency of the agency and American air travel. I look forward to vetting this nominee thoroughly in the coming weeks.”
  • House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) (quoted by Oriana Pawlyk of POLITICO): “Washington doesn’t have a tremendous amount of aviation experience, but what that place needs is a manager. And this guy is a manager. I mean the things he did with LA Metro… tunnels, subways, amazing things on time and under budget. I’m looking forward to someone who will actually shake that agency up.”
  • Airlines for America: “If he is confirmed as FAA Administrator, A4A and our member airlines will look forward to working closely with Phil Washington and will continue to collaborate with the agency to ensure that commercial aviation remains the safest mode of transportation in the world especially as we emerge from the pandemic.

Phil Washington served on the Eno Center’s Board of Directors for several years while head of the Denver mass transit system, before departing from Denver (and Eno) to go run L.A. Metro. This interview which he gave to ETW in 2015 gives a sense of his background and his approach towards leadership.

As noted by Sen.Wicker, Washington’s background is light on aviation-specific experience, with only his year at the helm of DIA (the rest of his transportation experience is in surface transportation). With this nomination, the Biden White House appears to be emulating the approach used by President Clinton in 1997 when he nominated Jane Garvey to the first-ever fixed 5-year term as FAA chief. Garvey had served in a variety of surface transportation positions, culminating as FHWA Administrator, but had only a 2-year stint running the Massachusetts state airport authority on the aviation side of her resume.

So anyone interested should check out the Commerce Committee’s June 1997 hearing on Garvey’s nomination to see how they dealt with the aviation-specific experience issue. (Reminder: Garvey was the one who wound up getting the FAA through the whole 9/11 experience).

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