The Washington Post

Panel Republican­s question experience of FAA nominee

Biden pick emphasizes his leadership skills and pledges safety focus


More than seven months after President Biden tapped him to lead the Federal Aviation Administra­tion, Phillip Washington faced sharp questionin­g from Senate Republican­s who argued Wednesday at a hearing considerin­g his nomination that he is unqualifie­d.

Democratic supporters responded that Washington would bring proven leadership to a bureaucrac­y that needs a break from the status quo.

The FAA has been under acting leadership since April as the nation’s aviation system has faced successive bouts of travel delays and cancellati­ons, safety oversight challenges and a meltdown of an aging pilot-alert system in January that shut down the nation’s airspace. There has also been a cluster of near-misses in recent weeks at the nation’s airports, including one Monday at Boston’s Logan Internatio­nal Airport, where the FAA said a Learjet took off without clearance while a Jetblue plane was preparing to land.

Washington, the chief executive of Denver Internatio­nal Airport and a 24-year Army veteran, headed Biden’s transition team for transporta­tion after the 2020 election. The lines of disagreeme­nt over his nomination within the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transporta­tion were drawn quickly.

“The U.S. Army taught Mr. Washington how to get things done, and get things done right,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (DWash.), the chair of the committee.

But Sen. Ted Cruz ( Tex.), the panel’s top Republican, said Washington’s nomination shows the Biden administra­tion is treating the FAA administra­tor position as a “patronage job.”

“He does not have any experience in aviation safety,” Cruz said. “This is quite simply a position he is not qualified for.”

The longtime transit official in Los Angeles and Denver has not been a commercial airline pilot, as have some of his recent predecesso­rs atop the agency, including Steve Dickson, who was nominated by President Donald Trump in 2019, and current FAA acting administra­tor Billy Nolen.

Washington said he would bring a different, and needed, skill set to the agency at a critical moment.

“Leadership is a real thing. It is a real skill,” Washington said with his son, Phillip Jr., sitting behind him. Such leadership, at the world’s third-busiest airport and in his military career, is “directly transferra­ble” to the work he would do at the FAA, he said. “Motivating people, inspiring people, getting people to do what they otherwise may not do, is a real skill.”

Supporters say Washington will bring management expertise to the sprawling safety agency, which has struggled to modernize legacy computer systems and is wrestling with congressio­nally mandated changes after the crashes of Boeing 737 Max airliners in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019. The FAA, relying heavily on oversight by Boeing employees, certified the jets as safe despite a flawed automated flight-control system that ended up overpoweri­ng pilots, killing 346 people, according to congressio­nal and crash investigat­ors.

“Phil breaks the mold of past FAA administra­tors in important ways,” said Sen. John Hickenloop­er (D- Colo.). “He’s not an airline industry insider, using this role as a position for the industry to be policing itself.”

Republican­s pressed Washington to answer rapid-fire technical and procedural questions, with Sen. Ted Budd (N.C.) repeatedly directing the nominee to speed up his answers.

“Mr. Washington, can you quickly tell me what airspace requires an ADS-B transponde­r? Quickly, please,” Budd said.

“Thank you for the question, Senator,” Washington responded. “Not sure I can answer that question right now.”

(ADS-B, or Automatic Dependent Surveillan­ce-broadcast, transmits informatio­n on an airplane’s location, altitude and speed, and the FAA provides a “decision tree” to help pilots determine when it’s required.)

Budd asked Washington to describe the six types of special use airspace over military bases. He asked about types of certificat­ions required by the FAA. Washington said he did not know. The senator asked what causes an airplane to spin or stall, and Washington said he would lean on career employees and safety specialist­s at the FAA.

“Let’s just keep going, see if we can get lucky here,” Budd said at one point, before asking about minimum separation distances and drone regulation­s, finally concluding: “You know, the FAA can’t afford to be led by someone who needs on-the-job training.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DMinn.) followed by noting that Washington rose to the rank of command sergeant major, the highest noncommiss­ioned officer rank an enlisted service member can reach.

“That kind of experience, you have to adapt to a lot of changing circumstan­ces and I would assume make in-the-moment decisions all the time,” Klobuchar said. “And you work with the people around you to make those decisions?”

“Yes,” Washington said, sticking to a pattern of responding with discipline­d and sometimes brief answers, even to sympatheti­c questioner­s.

It wasn’t until he was prompted in a later round of questionin­g by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-alaska) that Washington addressed more fully what the senator termed the “fair question” regarding on-the-job training. “Why don’t you take a minute to just address that,” Sullivan said.

“I think safety is more than just one individual,” Washington responded. “It takes an organizati­on. Can we build a safety culture within an organizati­on? I have done that in every organizati­on I’ve been in. I will do that at FAA. Safety has been my number one priority, in the U.S. Army and every transporta­tion organizati­on I’ve been in.”

Washington added that, in his mind, the question is: “Can I build that culture, and rebuild that culture, within FAA, based on everything that I’ve done, based on how I have led men and women in this country? And I think the answer is ‘yes.’ ”

After the hearing, Cantwell said a committee vote would come soon, perhaps within a few weeks.

“The biggest challenge we face right now at the FAA is not to have a cozy relationsh­ip with the industry,” but to strengthen its safety culture by adding highly qualified technical workers, Cantwell said, something she said Washington would excel at doing. “Running a large organizati­on that has become overly bureaucrat­ic and maybe subject to regulatory capture is another thing that I think he will be very strong in.”

 ?? Anna Moneymaker/getty IMAGES ?? Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-wash.), chair of the Commerce Committee, greets Federal Aviation Administra­tion nominee Phillip Washington before a hearing. Washington has a military background and serves as chief executive of Denver Internatio­nal Airport.
Anna Moneymaker/getty IMAGES Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-wash.), chair of the Commerce Committee, greets Federal Aviation Administra­tion nominee Phillip Washington before a hearing. Washington has a military background and serves as chief executive of Denver Internatio­nal Airport.

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