Biden’s FAA Nominee Withdraws After Debate Over His Qualifications

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
March 27, 2023Politics
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Biden’s FAA Nominee Withdraws After Debate Over His Qualifications
Phillip A. Washington speaks at a nomination hearing with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 1, 2023. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Phillip Washington, who was President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), withdrew his name from consideration over the weekend amid questions from lawmakers about his level of aviation experience going into the job.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg referenced Washington’s decision to withdraw his name in a message posted on Twitter on Saturday evening: “The FAA needs a confirmed Administrator, and Phil Washington’s transportation & military experience made him an excellent nominee. The partisan attacks and procedural obstruction he has faced are undeserved, but I respect his decision to withdraw and am grateful for his service.”

Washington’s nomination collapse came about after several airline pilots have narrowly avoided collisions in recent weeks. The FAA’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system also experienced an outage in January that led to thousands of commercial flights being grounded across the United States.

Republican Pilot-Congresspersons Urged Biden To Withdraw Nomination

Washington is the current CEO of Denver International Airport, but is not a trained pilot. During the Senate confirmation process, Republican lawmakers made note of Washington’s lack of direct flight experience.

In one hearing on March 1, Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) quizzed Washington on a number of existing aviation regulations. Budd said that he asked Washington seven questions on aviation policy, but that the Biden nominee was unable to answer any of them.

“What are the operational limitations of a pilot flying under BasicMed,” Budd asked at one point.

“Well some of the restrictions I think would be high blood pressure,” Washington said in response.

“It’s more like how many passengers per airplane, how many pounds in different categories and what altitude you can fly under, so—and then the amount of knots, it’s under 250 knots, so it does not have anything to do with blood pressure,” said Budd, who has a pilot’s license.

As Budd continued his line of questioning about various flight regulations, Washington said, “Senator, I’m not a pilot, but I would lean on our career employees and our safety folks within the FAA.”

Budd organized a letter (pdf) on March 16 calling on Biden to withdraw Washington’s name from consideration for the FAA leadership role. 13 other Republican lawmakers who have pilot’s licenses and other formal aviation experience also signed the letter.

“As pilots who have collectively logged tens of thousands of flight hours, including for some of us in the military, we write to urge you to withdraw the nomination of Phillip Washington to serve as Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),” the Republican lawmakers wrote. “While Mr. Washington honorably served our nation in the Army, he did not serve in an aviation unit. He is not a pilot, has zero aviation safety experience, and is entirely unqualified to lead the federal agency responsible for keeping the flying public safe.”

“The FAA cannot afford to be led by someone who needs on-the-job training,” the lawmakers added.

Sen. Duckworth and Past FAA Administrators Defended Nomination

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who flew Black Hawk helicopters for the U.S. Army and who lost both of her legs after her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004, published a statement of support for Washington the day after Budd’s letter to Biden.

“As Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations and Innovation, and as a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who flew combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’m proud to support the nomination of Phil Washington to be the next Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration,” Duckworth wrote.

Duckworth noted that she had secured a commitment from Washington to maintain the 1,500-hour flight-time rule for individuals before they can serve as commercial airline pilots.

“Mr. Washington has promised to defend critical aviation safety standards—and withstand pressure from industry special interests to cut corners and water down pilot requirements, such as cutting the 1,500-hour rule,” Duckworth’s statement read. “Simply put, Mr. Washington possesses the experience and leadership expertise to strengthen the FAA to meet the complex challenges facing our civil aviation system.”

Former FAA Administrators Michael Huerta and Jane Garvey—and former Acting Administrator Linda Daschle—also defended Washington’s nomination.

“While aviation experience is important, this is not limited to flying airplanes,” Huerta, Garvey and Daschle wrote in a letter to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “None of us were pilots—in fact only two of the last five confirmed Administrators have been pilots. Yet, each of us had transportation, technology, and aviation-related backgrounds that prepared us for our jobs.”

The former administrators said Washington’s experience running an airport would provide a useful basis for the position of FAA administrator.

“Running an airport involves overseeing large-scale infrastructure projects and managing business operations. But, to be clear, the safety mission is at the top of the daily agenda for every airport,” the former administrators wrote.

NTD News contacted Washington’s office at Denver International Airport, but did not receive a response before this article was published.

Key Vote Was Delayed

Washington withdrew from consideration for the FAA role just days after the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation delayed a vote to move his nomination out of the committee and toward a full Senate floor vote.

While Republican lawmakers openly opposed Washington’s nomination, Democrats could have pushed Washington’s nomination through the committee vote if they had the full support of all 13 Democrat members and the committee’s sole independent member, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

An Axios report—based on unnamed sources—claimed that Sinema had prompted the decision to delay the committee vote last week. The independent Senator has primarily caucused with the Democratic majority in the Senate, but has repeatedly broken ranks with Democrats and changed her political affiliation to “independent” in December 2022.

Duckworth told Politico that the committee vote was postponed due to “one person,” but did not say who.

NTD News reached out to Sinema’s office for comment, but did not receive a response before this article was published.

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