Key Republican backs Biden nominee to head FAA

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A key Senate Republican said Thursday he plans to support the White House nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the agency addresses a series of near-miss incidents and air traffic controller staffing shortages.

Last month, President Joe Biden nominated Michael Whitaker, chief commercial officer for Supernal, a Hyundai company developing an electric air taxi, who served as a deputy FAA administrator under President Barack Obama, to head the agency that has been without a permanent head for 18 months after the prior nominee withdrew.

“The FAA is in desperate need of independent leadership willing to challenge the status quo,” said Senator Ted Cruz, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee in a statement to Reuters. He said Whitaker “has expressly committed to focus on the FAA’s primary responsibility, which is ensuring the safety of our national aerospace.”

The committee held a confirmation hearing for Whitaker on Wednesday and he also won the support of Republican Senator Jerry Moran. Committee chair Maria Cantwell said she thought Whitaker did “very well” at hearing and she hopes to have a committee vote on the nomination.

Whitaker said the FAA must fix persistent air traffic controller staffing issues. The FAA has 10% fewer controllers than it did in 2012.

“We just simply need to solve this problem and figure out how to get it done,” Whitaker said.

He also said the FAA must address a spate of near miss airplane incidents and “really drive the most serious ones down to a level of zero … that needs to be our target.” In April, the FAA named an independent safety review team to look at ways to boost air safety and make recommendations by October.

The FAA last month said it would again extend cuts to minimum flight requirements at congested New York City-area airports through October 2024.

U.S. airlines including United have expressed growing frustration with air traffic staff shortages and sought waivers to minimum flight requirements.

Another key issue is when the FAA will certify the Boeing 737 MAX 7, a smaller version of the best-selling plane. In July, Boeing said the first MAX 7 delivery had been delayed to 2024. Congress in December waived rules requiring the MAX 7 and MAX 10 to have modern cockpit alerting systems.

(Reporting by David ShepardsonEditing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)