Biden picks former aviation official to head FAA

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The White House said on Thursday President Joe Biden is nominating a former senior aviation official to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that has been without a permanent head since April 2022.

Biden is tapping Michael Whitaker, currently chief commercial officer for Supernal, a Hyundai company developing an electric air vehicle, who served as a deputy FAA administrator under President Barack Obama. The choice will be formally announced later on Thursday.

The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed leader for more than 17 months after Steve Dickson stepped down halfway through his five-year term.

Whitaker’s nomination comes after a series of troubling near miss aviation incidents, including the near collision in August between a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 and a Cessna Citation 560X business jet in San Diego. The planes came within about 100 feet.

“The FAA needs a confirmed administrator and Mike Whitaker is the right leader for the job,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement to Reuters. “He knows aviation, he knows safety, he knows the FAA and he knows how to manage and modernize large organizations,” he said.

“Political gamesmanship should not get in the way of this nomination — the flying public has waited too long for a permanent leader at the FAA.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating seven runway incursion events since January, including the San Diego incident. In March, the FAA said it was taking steps to improve its air traffic control operations after near-miss incidents, telling employees: “There is no question that we are seeing too many close calls.”

Biden’s prior nominee to head the FAA Phil Washington withdrew in March after critics said he lacked aviation experience.

The FAA is also facing a shortage of air traffic controllers and last month cited the issue in agreeing to extend temporary cuts to minimum flight requirements at some congested airports.

In January, a computer system outage of a pilot alerting database prompted the FAA to halt departing flights for about two hours, the first nationwide ground stop since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and disrupted more than 11,000 U.S. flights.

Whitaker has 30 years of aviation experience and previously worked as an attorney for TWA and for United Airlines, where he served as a senior vice president. He has a private pilot certificate and is on the board the Flight Safety Foundation.

The Air Line Pilots Association praised Whitaker’s nomination and said the FAA needed “permanent, stable leadership that is safety-focused.”

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, applauded the nomination saying the “the U.S. aviation industry is currently facing critical challenges and significant opportunities in management of the National Airspace System.”

Congress is likely this month to pass a short-term extension of the FAA’s authority to operate beyond Sept. 30. A bill that would raise the mandatory commercial pilot retirement age to 67 from 65 and make other aviation reforms has stalled due to disagreements on whether to revise pilot training rules.

(Reporting by David ShepardsonEditing by Tomasz Janowski)