Nolen Leaving FAA


Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen has announced he’s leaving the agency this summer, leaving an even bigger leadership void in an organization that hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed leader for more than a year. Nolen announced his departure in a letter to FAA staff first reported by the Wall Street Journal. He told staff he wants to focus more on his family. He did not say if he has another job lined up and the Journal says he’s ruled himself out of taking the top job himself. Nolen has led the agency during a particularly difficult year which saw several airline system meltdowns and series of potentially catastrophic runway incursions involving airliners.

It would appear Nolen intends to stay on until the Biden administration nominates a new candidate and he or she is confirmed. Biden’s previous pick for the job, Phil Washington, withdrew from consideration last month after a rough ride during Senate confirmation hearings. His lack of aviation experience and his brush with a corruption scandal during his time leading the Los Angeles transit system drew intense opposition from Republican members and some Democrats had reportedly also expressed reservations about his qualifications. During those hearings Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) lobbied for Nolen to be nominated, saying he would draw strong bipartisan support.

Nolen had only been with the agency for a few months as head of safety when Administrator Steve Dickson resigned (to spend more time with his family). He returned to the U.S. to join the FAA after serving as the head of safety for Canadian airline WestJet. Before going to Canada he was a pilot for American Airlines and also held safety positions at American and Qantas. He also worked for the airline association Airlines for America.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. The “spend more time with my family” ploy is government speak for “I’m bailing out before it all hits the fan”. The fact that both Nolen and Dickson bailed might indicate that the FAA is more screwed up than it appears – a really scary thought. Nolen probably also realized that once Ted Cruz supported him, his odds of actually getting the job were nil. Here in Texas we call it the “Ted Cruz effect”.

    Actually, Larry, I would be happy to lobby for Paul to get the job, but I suspect he wouldn’t touch it with a long stick. I’m also okay with you getting the SAD position (pun intended), because Lord knows someone needs to do a little a$$ kicking in there.

    • You’re a genius, John. Director of SAD … why I’d even invent still another FAA magazine … The SAD Mag. Being a retired military senior NCO, kicking a$$ and taking names is one of my fortes 🙂 One thing is for sure … the feather merchants would remember me.

  2. “The fact that both Nolen and Dickson bailed might indicate that the FAA is more screwed up than it appears – a really scary thought.” – This could be true, but I think it more likely true that the bigger problems don’t stem from managing down, but from managing up. The dysfunction of Congress – and its inability to work with the executive – do not make for an attractive partner to manage up to. The legislative and executive set the terms under which the administrator operates, and appear to be making that job more trying with each passing year. It wouldn’t surprise me that anyone who’s had experience in the private sector would, after some experience as an appointee in government (or acting in that capacity), would decide “No matter the importance of the mission, this isn’t worth the self sacrifice.” (Kudos to those folks who stay and contribute their talents despite the poor experience.) As far as who’s to blame for this, one only needs a mirror to see the source of the problem. Based on what I’ve seen over the past 40-odd years, we get the government we deserve based on how we vote, and that’s where the blame lies.

  3. Watching this from afar, I am willing to bet my next 13 salaries on Paul B. refusing the position due to a desire to spend more time with family. Urban dictionary says listing “more time with family” in the resignation letter of a FAA administrator is code-speak for jumping from a sinking ship. Its time for steady leadership and its high time to stop the political clownery in these positions…

  4. If you look at Nolen’s resume for the past ten years “leaving jobs” seems to be the only thing he’s really good at.

  5. Sounds like he was smart enough to be a credible contender for the job but wise enough to not want it.

  6. At the core of this absolute mess is the political appointee program, which is archaic and impractical for the aviation industry and the public. Instead of rewarding actual qualifications, it only serves to benefit politicians. It’s time to end this nonsense and prioritize expertise and experience. Focus on getting things done for everyone, regardless of their political affiliation. Change to a system that values competence over political connections.

    • Raf, one way to achieve this outcome is privatization. Perhaps continued failures on the part of the politicians responsible for making and confirming appointments will force that outcome? While I’m not a fan of privatization – if politicians continue to fail to do their jobs well and then get out of the way of the people appointed to do theirs – then perhaps some day privatization will become the lesser of two bad failure states.

  7. Rats off a ship, cant say that I blame him. 4 years and counting until retirement, cant get here soon enough.