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Biden to nominate Whitaker to lead the FAA

Whitaker is a former FAA official and United executive

The Federal Aviation Administration hasn't had a leader confirmed by the Senate in more than a year and a half.
The Federal Aviation Administration hasn't had a leader confirmed by the Senate in more than a year and a half. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House said Thursday that President Joe Biden would nominate former aviation regulator and United Airlines executive Michael Whitaker to lead the Federal Aviation Administration, an announcement months in the waiting after Senate Republicans disapproved of the administration’s previous pick.

Whitaker is CEO of Supernal, a Hyundai Motor Group company designing an electric advanced air mobility vehicle. He was the FAA’s deputy administrator from 2013 to 2016 and acted as chief of the agency’s air traffic control modernization effort known as NextGen. His resume includes 15 years at United Airlines, where he eventually became senior vice president. 

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., praised the nomination. 

“There is no shortage of issues before the FAA. Mr. Whitaker will use his substantial aviation experience and knowledge to meet these challenges,” she said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him and his strong leadership at the agency.”

Whitaker is also a pilot, a fact that might prove important to committee ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who criticized Biden’s previous FAA pick for never having piloted a plane.

Cruz said in a statement he would look at Whitaker’s “qualifications, experience, and temperament.”

The FAA hasn’t had an administrator confirmed by the Senate for over a year and a half, but the announcement arrives during a tense time for aviation in Congress. Not only are lawmakers fielding constituent complaints of summer air travel woes, but the Senate is also struggling to pass an FAA reauthorization bill because of aviation policy disagreements.

Industry leaders and unions are already praising Whitaker for his aviation experience and urging the Senate to quickly confirm him. 

“Our national air transportation system needs attention,” Sara Nelson, president of flight attendant union Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said in a statement. “Perhaps more than any other time in aviation history, it is urgent that we have a confirmed FAA Administrator. Whitaker has the experience to step into the role and immediately lead us forward.”

The administration initially nominated Denver International Airport CEO Phillip Washington to head the agency, but Washington withdrew from consideration in March after senators led by Cruz said he lacked the necessary experience. The FAA’s acting administrator, Billy Nolen, stepped down in mid-June. The FAA’s current acting leader is Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg.

Whitaker will have to persuade senators that he can handle the complex aviation system. Lawmakers have been especially critical of the FAA for not keeping up with new technologies and not supporting new entrants to the national air space. 

After the January failure of the FAA’s Notice to Air Missions, a system that alerts pilots to hazards, grounding all flights across the country, lawmakers made agency modernization a priority in the FAA authorization bills. The House bill includes several sections that would address a reorganization of the FAA.

The post-COVID-19 surge in air travel has revealed passenger woes, causing many in Congress to call on the FAA to enact regulations that require air carriers to provide better services, fast reimbursements and accommodations to passengers. Whitaker will also have to demonstrate how he intends to maintain the country’s record on aviation safety.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the committee tasked with approving FAA picks, said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that he is looking forward to “swiftly assessing” the nomination, pointing to Whitaker’s experience in the FAA.

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