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 in his confirmation hearing for the agency’s top job Wednesday faced questions about that project and how he would handle new, complicated issues involving controllers, pilots and planes. Those issues included staffing shortages, pilot training standards and the FAA’s safety culture.
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.
No senators voiced outright opposition to confirming Whitaker, 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 that his experience in the No. 2 FAA job and training as a recreational pilot armed him with relevant knowledge to focus on the agency’s safety priorities and worker shortages. That job, he told lawmakers, gave him “significant technical knowledge of the complex systems that make up the national airspace.”
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.
“I would view my role as administrator as chief recruitment officer, certainly for FAA but also for the industry,” Whitaker told the Senate Commerce Committee. He said he would look at the idea of creating a second FAA training academy to relieve a bottleneck limiting the number of controllers the agency can hire each year.
Several senators pressed Whitaker on proposed changes to the pilot training rules that have gummed up a major aviation policy bill. The Senate stalemate nearly locked the FAA out of access to its bank account used to fund airport and technology improvements.
Whitaker signaled he would follow Congress’ lead on potential changes to the rule that junior airline pilots need 1,500 hours of flying experience, calling it “an important fabric of our safety net, if you will, and it has yielded good results in our operating system.”
The controversial proposal would allow pilots to gain some of those hours through time in aircraft simulators. Gaining flight hours gives a pilot career an especially high upfront cost. Some in the industry believe changing the requirements would make the industry more accessible while maintaining safety.
Whitaker said he doubted the best simulator technology – like multi-million-dollar machines mounted on motion stilts – would “normally be available for a pilot trying to get 1,500 hours.” The desktop simulators used by hobbyists do not meet the standards for pilot training, he stressed. ”
Senators also asked Whitaker about his oversight while deputy administrator of the massive air traffic control modernization program, known as NextGen.
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 called it “a successful and significant upgrade of the air traffic system that took many, many years to pull together.” He said as administrator he would focus on the next evolution of technology, which would also incorporate the latest and future aviation technologies: Air taxis, drones and commercial space flights.
Whitaker also pledged to look at the agency’s instructions to some office employees about remote work – an issue to some lawmakers who believe the agency and US government are less effective when employees telework part of the week.
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 sharply criticized Washington, and Washington withdrew without enough Democratic support to be confirmed.
Whitaker appears poised to fare better.
“As I have said since we received Mr. Whitaker’s nomination, I’m willing to keep an open mind and give him fair consideration on the merits,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said Wednesday. He pressed Whitaker on committing to promoting in-person work, and the nominee agreed.
The committee’s Democratic chairwoman, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, said she sees in Whitaker a “commitment to advancing aviation safety.”
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.
Dates for a committee and Senate floor vote have not yet been announced.