If you’re running low on outrage and haven’t enjoyed any angertainment say, since about two hours ago, click on this link. It’s an excruciating seven minutes of FAA admin nominee Phil Washington being grilled by the Senate Commerce Committee as part of his confirmation process. It’s also partisan sniping at its typical worst.
The senator doing the questioning is North Carolina freshman Ted Budd. Washington goes 0 for 7 on the questions, but the questions themselves have zip to do with being FAA administrator. They’re just the typical ambush-style flyspeck queries meant to tank the opposite party’s aspirations. The viewing public and most reporters don’t realize this. “Hey, this guy knows nothing about aviation,” is the intent and it was achieved.
Having said as much, the administration deserved to lose the round for not having prepped Washington better. Anyone with a scintilla of political savvy should have known what was coming and prepared the nominee. It seems obvious to me that this wasn’t done. By all appearances, Washington’s nomination was a patronage pick. He was on President Biden’s transportation transition team.
Our poll this week suggests that 66 percent of readers think the FAA administrator should be a pilot. I’m not among them. I picked nice to have because steely eyed stick and rudder skill is hardly a high priority in leading an agency as unwieldy as the FAA. It’s nice to have it to sniff out when the mid-level executives and staff are trying to snow you, which they will do from time to time. (Did I mention I did a cartoon on this?)
Exhibit A for me was the recently departed Steve Dickson. On paper, he was impressive. Air Force Academy grad, years of airline experience, including time in the C-suite. However well he did or didn’t perform, call me unimpressed. He resigned halfway through his term and my view is that this is service to the country. Don’t take the gig if you’re not willing to stay in it. On paper, Washington is less impressive. I give him props for navigating the Army bureaucracy to rise to the highest enlisted rank, but the rest of his experience is airport and transportation related. A plus, maybe, but also maybe not enough.
Winding the tape back 40 years, 12 FAA administrators have been pilots, seven have not been. Judging their efficacy is eye of the beholder, but some have had disasters happen on their watches. Take Michael Huerta—not a pilot—whose term coincided with Boeing’s disastrous 737 MAX certification. He was gone from the agency when the cover was whisked off the rot and incompetence and it fell to Dickson to suffer through the aftermath. He did, but not in a way that filled me with bubbling confidence.
Huerta, who came through the professional executive pipe stream, was so boring and politic that Russ Niles and I used to get into thumb wrestling matches about whose turn it was to interview him at Time with the Administrator “opportunities” at Oshkosh. Yet people who dealt with Huerta directly in small groups said he was an effective, informed leader.
From the dreamy days before social media turned us all into snarling Dunning-Kruger poster children, there were actually people from general aviation in the FAA’s top chair. One was J. Lynn Helms, the other Donald Engen. Both them ran Piper in the days when it was still a force in GA and both were naval aviators. Helms was a Marine; Engen rose to command an aircraft carrier. Neither had airline experience. Helms had an eventful term as administrator, overseeing what became the National Airspace System and bringing TCAS through deployment. He resigned under a cloud in 1983 for illegal business activities.
Looking back over those appointments, many were drawn from the ranks of military or business communities, thus we get Phil Washington. But Helms and Engen had far broader aviation experience, especially Engen whose command responsibility was both impressive and aviation oriented. Simpler times then. I bet he didn’t suffer any gotcha questions during his confirmation hearing. Senate Republicans want Washington’s nomination withdrawn, which it probably will be if the Democrats can’t whip the votes.
This could be fortuitous because already in the seat is Billy Nolen, the acting administrator. When he first surfaced, I thought he had come up through the ranks of the FAA’s executive corps but he is in fact an outsider with stints as an airline pilot and manager with a specific specialty that’s much needed at the moment: safety systems oversight. Many in the industry are a little queasy about the number of incidents and near accidents we’re having. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t see another controller operational error or pilot deviation. I don’t know what this means, frankly.
My guess is that it’s pandemic related. The shutdown was a wrenching, cataclysmic event that brought the airline industry to a near standstill. Then, obsessed with recovering lost revenue, airline managers began aggressively selling seats their companies didn’t quite have the aircraft, pilots and staff to fly. This may be smoothing out now, but I suspect we’re not done seeing troubling incidents. If there are deeper problems, Nolen seems to have the skills to find out what they are.
He ought to know the airline biz and has a systems safety background. I’m sure he can read and understand the patterns in what data is available better than Phil Washington could and better yet, he’s been on the job for almost a year. He probably has the votes for confirmation.
So get on with it. Give Nolen the job.