When Michael Whitaker last worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, his tasks included bringing air traffic control – which tracked airplanes using strips of paper – into the 21st century.
Whitaker served as deputy FAA administrator seven years ago, and when he appears for his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday he is expected to face tough questions from Republicans about that project, which has been criticized for missed expectations and milestones, as well as how he would handle new, complicated issues involving controllers, pilots and planes.
If ultimately confirmed to a five-year term, Whitaker would become the agency’s first Senate-confirmed chief in 18 months – a level of authority aviation leaders say is essential to FAA stability. Key items awaiting the administrator’s eye include safety after a series of airliner close calls at US runways, as well as tackling employee shortages in air traffic control facilities, cockpits, airports and maintenance hangars.
Whitaker is an airline executive and attorney who was most recently chief operating officer at an electric air taxi maker – an emerging technology that could one day ferry travelers from their homes to the airport through the sky. The issue will cross his desk in the years ahead. He told senators in a document outlining his background that his experience in the No. 2 FAA job “allowed me to significantly deepen my technical knowledge of the air traffic system, as well as the technologies that the FAA and industry have applied to achieve the highest standards of safety in the world.”
That experience would be tested immediately as the FAA seeks to rebuild its air traffic control hiring and training pipeline. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says the FAA has 3,000 ATC vacancies. Washington spending fights threaten that progress, because if the federal government shuts down in mid-November, the FAA would be forced to pause its training programs.
Republican senators may have tough questions for Whitaker about his last FAA tenure, though he appears to have support in the aviation world. An aide to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the committee interviewing Whitaker, said lawmakers are looking for answers about the certification of Boeing’s deadly 737 MAX aircraft and his oversight of the massive air traffic control modernization program, known as NextGen.
“I think everyone knows that NextGen did not deliver the benefits it was supposed to deliver, so we’ll be interested in what he has to say on that,” Simone Perez, the GOP policy director for the Senate Commerce Committee, said last week at the Regional Airline Association conference.
The Department of Transportation inspector general has probed the multi-billion-dollar NextGen program multiple times, and in 2021 – five years after Whitaker left office – found the “actual and projected benefits have not kept pace with initial projections due to implementation challenges, optimistic assumptions, and other factors.” In February, the inspector general started a new review of the program’s status.
Whitaker has defended his NextGen work and while in office called it “the most important infrastructure project in the US.”
He is President Joe Biden’s second nominee to lead the agency. His first nominee, Phil Washington, withdrew after facing criticism for his limited aviation experience and links to a political corruption investigation. Cruz and other Republicans sharply criticized Washington, and Washington withdrew without enough Democratic support to be confirmed.
Whitaker is expected to fare better.
“I expect if the nominee demonstrates that he’s qualified and competent and there are not serious skeletons in his closet that we don’t currently know about, I expect and hope that we’ll move expeditiously to confirm him or another qualified nominee,” Cruz said at the RAA conference.
The committee’s Democratic chairwoman, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington said she believes Whitaker “will use his substantial aviation experience and knowledge to meet” the FAA’s challenges.
Many of the key aviation organizations have voiced support for Whitaker. The major airline association applauded his “extensive experience.” The business aviation world called him an “outspoken aviation safety advocate.” And the largest airline pilots group said he would bring “permanent, stable leadership that is safety-focused.”
He appears on Capitol Hill as lawmakers wrestle with their long-term visions for FAA priorities. The complex FAA policy bill is currently stalled in the Senate over differences in pilot training.