Biden administration nominates new FAA head after delay

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The Federal Aviation Administration may finally be getting a long-term leader — for the first time in nearly 18 months.

President Joe Biden plans to nominate Michael Whitaker to head the FAA, the White House said Thursday.

Whitaker is currently the chief operating officer at Supernal, an electric aircraft startup owned by Hyundai that is developing an eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicle.

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Before joining the startup, Whitaker served as the FAA’s deputy administrator under former President Barack Obama. He has more than 30 years of aviation experience, including several years as a lawyer for TWA; additionally, he spent nearly 15 years as an executive at United Airlines, where he oversaw regulatory affairs, according to LinkedIn. He is also a certified private pilot, the White House said.

The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since the departure of Stephen Dickson in March 2022. Billy Nolen, a former airline pilot and executive who had joined the FAA in 2021, served as acting administrator until earlier this summer. The current acting administrator, Polly Trottenberg, took over the agency in June and has a broad background in transportation policy.

The Biden administration nominated Phil Washington, the CEO of Denver International Airport (DEN), to serve as administrator in July 2022. Washington withdrew his nomination this past March due to a lack of support in Congress following questions about limited aviation experience and allegations of corruption in a former role.

Whitaker’s nomination comes as the FAA confronts several prolific issues, including a chronic shortage of air traffic controllers and a series of near misses that have highlighted safety concerns within the nation’s air travel system over the past year. In January, the FAA system that distributes safety alerts to pilots — or Notices to Air Missions — experienced an outage following a botched update, grounding thousands of flights.

Various industry and labor groups expressed support for the nomination Thursday.

“ALPA applauds the nomination of Michael Whitaker to lead the safest and most complex aviation system in the world,” Capt. Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association union, said in a statement. “In order to maintain the world’s safest air transportation system, modernize outdated infrastructure, and keep passengers and crews safe, we need permanent, stable leadership that is safety-focused, and we look forward to his swift approval by the United States Senate.”

Richie Johnsen, a leader of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, agreed.

“As the largest airline union in the United States, the IAM is confident that Mike Whitaker will put air transport workers at the forefront of decision-making at the FAA,” he said in a statement. “Together, we are committed to work together to protect air transport workers against passenger assault, address foreign repair station policy, tackle industry understaffing, and more.”

“After a year-and-a-half of delays, we urge the U.S. Senate to move swiftly to confirm Mr. Whitaker as the next administrator of the FAA,” he added.

United Airlines, Whitaker’s former employer, also issued a statement supporting his nomination.

“Now more than ever, the FAA needs strong leadership,” the airline said. “Mike has deep aviation expertise and a solid reputation as a problem solver. We urge the U.S. Senate to move swiftly on his confirmation process.”