Phil Washington, the White House nominee to head the FAA, faced scrutiny from several members of Congress during a divisive Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday morning.
Washington’s March 1 hearing comes nearly eight months after his nomination by the Biden administration, and the FAA has been without a permanent leader for more than a year.
Wednesday’s hearing highlighted several challenges the agency has faced over the last few months—including thousands of flight disruptions, the first ground stop since 9/11, staffing shortages, and several potentially catastrophic incursions at U.S. airports.
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In his opening statement, Washington said, “The FAA is at a crossroads—an agency that must protect the safest era in aviation, modernize its technology, lift employee morale while staffing up, and maintain its global leadership in aviation.”
He touted his leadership skills as the current CEO of Denver International Airport—the third-busiest in the world—and his military experience, having served 24 years and earning the highest enlisted rank of Command Sergeant Major, E-9.
He remarked, “We need permanent leadership at the top of the FAA to address the challenges that we have seen in the last several years. If confirmed, I will draw on a career spanning almost 45 years to be that leader. The safety of the traveling public will remain my top priority—as it has been for me leading the third largest airport in the world, two large transit agencies, and men and women in uniform.”
However, several members of Congress brought up Washington’s lack of aviation experience and his background, which has been tainted with several recent controversies and lawsuits.
Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was unsuccessful in delaying Washington’s hearing, was critical of his legal entanglements and ability to lead the FAA. “He does not have any experience in aviation safety. This quite simply is a position he is not qualified for. I’m disappointed that the administration has chosen to treat a critical safety position as a patronage job.”
Cruz went on to grill Washington on his aviation knowledge and whether or not he has ever flown an airplane, worked for an airline, as an air traffic controller, or for a company that manufactures aircraft, or if he knows what led to the Boeing 737 Max crashes. “For this administration to nominate someone as FAA administrator who can’t answer the question, ‘Why were 346 people killed in horrific crashes’ that resulted in the 737 Max being grounded for a long time is striking!”
Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) was surprised that the administration renominated Washington. “I think it’s fair to say that you would already be confirmed if there had not been serious, bipartisan questions about your qualifications and fitness for office,” he said.
When Senator Ted Budd (R-N.C.) questioned the nominee on what airspace requires an ADS-B transponder, what causes an aircraft to stall, or what the separation minimums are between aircraft, Washington again came up short, reiterating that he is not a pilot.
“The FAA can’t afford to be led by someone who needs on-the-job training,” said Budd. “And for that reason, I’m going to be opposing your nomination.”
Several other Republicans were concerned with Washington’s track record of prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies ahead of what they deemed more pressing matters in his previous leadership roles.
Meanwhile, several Democrats backed Washington’s nomination saying Republican resistance is part of a smear campaign, while Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called their opposition a “hatchet job.”
In a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democrats voiced their support of Washington, saying the FAA needs a leader as soon as possible. They also noted previous FAA nominees who lacked aviation experience but were confirmed, such as Michael Huerta.
Senator John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said, “He’s not an airline industry insider using his role as a position for the industry to police itself. The challenges facing the FAA are those of managing a large, complex bureaucracy badly in need of modernization, and certainly in that respect he’s no novice.”
The FAA has been without a permanent leader since April 2022 when Stephen Dickson stepped down midway through his term. Billy Nolen has since been acting as temporary administrator.
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