Qualified-Pilot Members of Congress Battle Over Biden’s FAA Nominee

Ryan Morgan
By Ryan Morgan
March 17, 2023USshare
Qualified-Pilot Members of Congress Battle Over Biden’s FAA Nominee
Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) is pictured in a still from a video of an interview with NTD. (NTD)

Lawmakers with aviation experience are weighing in on President Joe Biden’s decision to nominate Phil Washington to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) despite his having no prior aviation expertise.

Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), who is a member of the Commerce Committee and has a pilot’s license, organized a letter (pdf) to Biden on Thursday urging him to withdraw Washington’s nomination. Budd was joined by other Republican lawmakers who have aviation qualifications, including Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Reps. August Pfluger (R-Texas), Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), Jack Bergman (R-Mich.), Wesley Hunt (R-Texas), Mike Bost (R-Ill.), Scott Franklin (R-Fla.), Jake Ellzey (R-Texas), Scott Perry (R-Pa.), John James (R-Mich.), Mike Garcia (R-Calif.), Rich McCormick (R-Ga.), and Chris Stewart (R-Utah).

“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.”

During a hearing on March 1, Budd 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,” Budd replied.

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.”

Washington’s nomination comes as 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.

Duckworth Defends FAA Nominee

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, has come out in support of Biden’s decision to nominate Washington.

“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 said in a press statement on Friday.

Earlier this month, Duckworth said that she had secured a commitment from Washington to maintain a 1,500-hour flight time rule for people to 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 Friday press statement reads. “Simply put, Mr. Washington possesses the experience and leadership expertise to strengthen the FAA to meet the complex challenges facing our civil aviation system. At this seminal moment for FAA, we need a strong and principled leader who recognizes that restoring confidence in our civil aviation system will require more than ‘business as usual.’”

However, 49 U.S. Code § 106(c)(3) states that an FAA administrator must have experience in a field directly related to aviation.

Washington has served as the CEO of Denver International Airport, which is the third busiest airport in the world and which employs about 35,000 workers.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) has presented Washington’s lack of deep ties to the aviation industry as a positive sign that he won’t be easily swayed by industry insiders.

“I think Phil breaks the mold of past FAA Administrators in important ways. He’s not an airline industry insider using this role as a position for the industry to be policing itself,” Hickenlooper said upon introducing Washington’s nomination.

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