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Whitaker testifies at Senate FAA confirmation hearing

Michael Whitaker, President Joe Biden’s nominee for FAA administrator, faced a range of questions from members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee during a confirmation hearing on October 4.

Image courtesy of C-Span.

The hearing gave the nominee a chance to highlight his priorities at the FAA if confirmed as administrator—and gave lawmakers a chance to propose what progress and initiatives they’d like to see in the aviation industry.

During the hearing, committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) noted that Whitaker's nomination has attracted broad support not only from across the aisle, but from across the aviation community. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the ranking Republican on the committee, said he was glad the Biden administration heeded his advice and nominated a person with significant experience in aviation.

“Safety is dependent on consistency, and unfortunately, the only thing that’s been consistent at the agency since the former administrator departed is the growing list of acting positions across the agency. Eighteen months without an FAA administrator is troubling,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who introduced Whitaker to the committee.

Safety culture concerns and the aviation workforce were on the minds of many committee members, who asked for plans of action amid a concerning pattern of near misses by commercial aircraft and a significant shortage of air traffic controllers—problems that have only been exacerbated by the lack of permanent leadership at the FAA for the past 18 months.

Safety of the flying public is Whitaker’s top priority. “They have put their trust in the FAA to keep aviation the safest way to travel, and the world has looked to us for decades as the gold standard,” he said.

Whitaker hopes to keep that trust and detailed three priorities if confirmed as administrator: maintaining and building upon the safety record the agency has achieved; building the aviation system of the future; and making the FAA an employer of choice, where aviators go to build careers.

Whitaker has spent more than three decades serving in leadership positions across the aviation industry. His experience working in executive positions in the private and public sectors offers him unique insight into the wide variety of work he will encounter if confirmed. He spent three years at the FAA earlier in his career, serving as deputy administrator during the Obama administration, a position that Whitaker believes will allow him to make an “immediate impact at the FAA.”

“During this time, I gained significant technical knowledge of the complex systems that make up the national airspace,” he said. “While at the FAA I also earned my private pilot certificate to better understand the national airspace from the perspective of a user of that system.”

Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), a general aviation pilot himself, spoke about the success of BasicMed and asked Whitaker about his thoughts on the AOPA-championed program, under which 80,000 pilots have safely flown since the program’s inception in 2016. Whitaker said he completed his BasicMed just a few weeks ago. He also took the required online course, which he thought was quite useful, noting that it was “a very clever efficiency that actually, in my view, yielded more information and was more useful to the pilot.”

Committee members also raised concerns on items within the delayed FAA reauthorization. While the Senate committee still hasn’t passed its version of the legislation, if confirmed, Whitaker will be tasked with implementing the bill once it passes. The stability of Whitaker’s leadership and the passage of FAA reauthorization could bring a long-awaited certainty to the aviation industry.

The Commerce Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on Whitaker’s nomination, which is required before he can be considered by the full Senate.

Lillian Geil

Communications Specialist
Communications Specialist Lillian Geil is a student pilot and a graduate of Columbia University who joined AOPA in 2021.
Topics: Advocacy, Capitol Hill

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