Phil Washington Rumored for FAA Administrator

Yesterday, the Seattle Times reported that Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington, the former head of the Los Angeles County mass transit agency (and former Eno Board of Directors member), will be named by President Biden as his nominee to run the Federal Aviation Administration “within days.”

No other news outlet (as of this writing) has been able to confirm the Times‘ scoop, but because of the outsized importance that Boeing has in the Seattle-area economy, the Times‘ aviation desk is one of the best-sourced and comprehensively knowledgeable in the nation.

The FAA post (a fixed five-year term) became available when Steve Dickson resigned at the end of March 2022, barely halfway through his five-year term. Billy Nolen, the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, is currently serving as Acting Administrator.

Phil Washington served as the head of the Biden-Harris transition team for the Department of Transportation in late 2020 and early 2021.  Unlike other transition team members such as Polly Trottenberg, Vinn White, Brad Mims, and Florence Chen, Washington did not immediately take a role in the Administration.

Washington has been at the Denver airport for a little less than one year. Immediately prior to that, he spent six years running L.A. Metro, the sprawling transportation system of Los Angeles County. Before that, he spent 16 years at the Denver Regional Transit District, the first ten as Assistant General Manager, and the last six as GM.

The resume, as you can see, is light on aviation. This is not unprecedented. Some noteworthy FAA Administrators in the past came to the agency without sector-specific background (Langhorne Bond, who passed away earlier this year, springs to mind, and neither Jane Garvey nor Mike Huerta had much aviation background before becoming FAA Deputy Administrator, which they both then used to springboard to Administrator).

But, in this instance, putting a relative outsider in charge of the FAA would be a feature, not a bug. The multiple investigations into the 737 MAX certification process revealed many instances of “regulatory capture,” where FAA employees appeared to be too close with, or were overpowered by, the manufacturers they were supposed to be regulating. The White House may be trying to compensate for that.

If Washington is indeed nominated, expect the White House to point out the longest part of his resume – the 24 years he spent in the U.S. Army after enlisting at age 17, culminating in his achieving the rank of Command Sergeant Major. People who make it all the way up to the E-9 grade (sergeants major, master chief petty officers, master gunnery sergeants) tend to have managerial and motivational skills and general problem-solving abilities that translate well into a wide variety of occupations and organizations.

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