President Joe Biden’s embattled pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration participated in his confirmation hearing before Congress on Wednesday amid a series of challenges for the agency.
Phil Washington, whose nomination was first announced by Biden nearly eight months ago, appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. While Democrats largely seemed supportive, he was grilled by Republican senators on issues that have emerged since he was nominated last summer – pressing him on why he’s qualified to lead an agency that urgently needs to address a slew of complex challenges.
Washington offers a defense against his lack of aviation experience
Washington, the current CEO of the Denver International Airport, has held leadership roles at municipal transit organizations, including in Denver and Los Angeles, focused on bus and rail lines. He also led the Biden-Harris transition team for the Department of Transportation. Prior to his work in transportation, Washington served in the military for 24 years.
While Washington has worked in transportation-related positions since 2000, he had no experience in the aviation industry prior to joining the Denver airport in 2021 – a major concern among committee members.
In his opening remarks, Washington said that if confirmed he would “work diligently to support the extraordinary team at the FAA.” He also repeatedly defended his qualifications, particularly with regards to safety.
“As a military veteran and leader of three large transportation organizations, my broad transportation safety knowledge and real world leadership experiences provide me a unique perspective on how aviation on all modes of transportation should integrate into a seamless system,” Washington said.
He told senators later in the hearing that “in running ground transportation units I was not a train operator … but I was named the best … public transportation CEO in this country.”
Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, the ranking Republican on the commerce committee, said in his opening remarks, “The nominee before us, Phil Washington, had a long and honorable career in the military, but he does not have any experience in aviation safety. This, quite simply, is a position he is not qualified for.”
Arizona independent Sen. Kirsten Sinema, who caucuses with the Democrats, acknowledged during the hearing that Washington has “less experience in aviation” when compared to his experience in broader transportation management.
“Aviation experience, as you know, is important to this position. And as you know, the federal law listing the requirements for the FAA administrator states the nominee must have experience in a field directly related to aviation,” she said, asking Washington to describe his aviation experience and how it qualifies him for the FAA job.
Republicans zero-in on a complicated nomination
Since his nomination last summer, Washington has faced questions about his limited experience and, in September, was named in a search warrant issued as part of a political corruption investigation in Los Angeles.
Washington has said that though his name was mentioned in the search warrant along with several other names, no search was ever executed on him or his property, nor was he questioned about the matter. He reiterated on Wednesday that he stands by his work in Los Angeles and that the allegations lodged against him are false.
His name was also recently mentioned in a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month. Benjamin Juarez, a former parking director at the Denver Airport, alleges that the city permitted intolerable working conditions and that he faced ongoing threats to his job, Axios reported. Juarez’s attorney says he contacted Washington, who was leading the airport, at least twice for help and did not receive a response.
Along with Washington’s lack of aviation experience, Republicans on Wednesday raised issues over his legal entanglements and his management and his possible ineligibility.
Cruz and other Republicans also focused on Washington’s work to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion in his work.
Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance asked about Washington’s work to advance equity in his work, arguing, “The aviation industry is maybe the single industry where aptitude and where safety matter more than almost anything else.”
“I can’t imagine even going under the knife – I’d probably choose having a safe pilot as more important than even going under the knife for surgery,” he added.
Calls for a military waiver
Republicans have also questioned whether Washington, an Army veteran who left the military in 2000 after more than 20 years of service, would be statutorily considered a civilian – a requirement in order to serve as the FAA chief.
If he’s not considered a civilian, he would need a waiver from Congress permitting him to lead the agency. And Republicans in both the House and the Senate do not support granting Washington a waiver.
Cruz on Wednesday asserted, “If Senate Democrats force this nomination through without a waiver a legal cloud will hang over every single FAA action.”
Several Democratic senators rebutted Republican criticisms, with several Democrats and a number of aviation and transit groups signaling their support for Washington.
Colorado Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday acknowledged Washington is “not an airline industry insider using this role as a position for the industry to be policing itself. The challenges of managing FAA are those of managing a large complex bureaucracy badly in need of modernization. Certainly in that respect he’s no novice.”
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, meanwhile, called the GOP critiques “a hatchet job.”
“Instead of moving quickly to confirm the president’s nominee, Republicans and their allies have tried to delay Mr. Washington’s job by attacking him, throwing everything they have to try and stop a qualified nominee and in doing so they are smearing a longtime public servant, an Army veteran,” he said during the hearing.
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing commerce committee chair Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, called Washington “an experienced, mission-driven leader who has successfully led three of the largest and most complex transportation organizations in the country.”
“Today, (the FAA) needs a strong leader to fully implement reforms and to address the challenges our national aviation system faces. I am looking forward to this opportunity for Mr. Washington to discuss his qualifications and vision for making the FAA the global gold standard in aviation safety,” Cantwell added.
The hearing for Washington comes after a year of the FAA operating without a permanent administrator. In that time, the agency has contended with several problems that have plagued travelers and the airline industry, such as recent near-collisions involving airliners, crucial staffing shortages and malfunctions of aging technology that have cause major air travel disruption.
The agency has a professed focus on safety, but agency leadership is ultimately responsible for steering its focus as its mission gets wider – with responsibilities expanding to include establishing the federal approach to private space launches and regulating drones – even as longstanding aspects of the aviation industry continue to grapple with major challenges.
A failure of the 30-year-old NOTAM, or Notice to Air Missions, system led to the first nationwide airplane departure grounding since the 9/11 attacks, showcasing just one way aging industry technology is being stretched beyond its limits by increased volume. Now, the FAA is planning to dramatically accelerate replacing the safety system.
Another FAA computer system failed earlier this year when it was overloaded, leading to delays in Florida. And the agency has struggled to modernize parts of air traffic control, with a 2021 Transportation Department Office of Inspection General report citing difficulties integrating the FAA’s multi-billion dollar Next Generation Air Transportation System project due to extended delays.
There have been recent near-collisions on US runways, prompting federal safety investigators to open multiple inquiries. Air traffic control is staffed at the lowest level in decades, according to industry experts. And key roles at US airlines pared down amid the Covid-19 pandemic have not ramped up to meet current outsized travel demand.
In February, Billy Nolen, the FAA’s acting chief, ordered a sweeping review of the agency in the wake of recent aviation safety incidents. That review is expected to include a major safety meeting this month.
This story has been updated with more from the hearing.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Celina Tebor contributed to this report.