By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration told Congress on Thursday its pick to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is fully qualified and does not violate a law requiring civilian leadership.
Republicans question whether Denver International Airport Chief Executive Officer Phil Washington has the required aviation experience needed to serve as top U.S. aviation regulator.
Transportation Department (USDOT) General Counsel John Putnam said in a letter reviewed by Reuters that Washington met the legal requirements for the job, adding “the fresh perspective he will bring to his top-to-bottom assessment of the FAA’s culture and operations will be a benefit.”
Senator Ted Cruz, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, and other Republicans say Washington, who retired from the U.S. Army in July 2000, must have a waiver from rules requiring civilian leadership to head the FAA.
“Congress and the president have strictly, repeatedly, and on a bipartisan basis interpreted the law, since it was written, as excluding retired military members like Phil Washington,” a spokeswoman for Cruz said. She rejected USDOT’s letter, arguing it was “based on a dictionary and an unrelated NASA statute.”
The FAA, without a permanent leader for nearly a year, has come under fire after a series of recent near miss incidents and still faces questions about its oversight of Boeing (NYSE:BA) after two fatal 737 MAX crashes. In January, the FAA halted all departing passenger airline flights for nearly two hours because of a computer outage, the first nationwide ground stop of its kind since Sept. 11, 2001.
Acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen will hold a safety summit on Wednesday. The United States has not had a major fatal U.S. passenger airline crash since February 2009.
Cruz said on Wednesday that Washington was “unable to answer basic safety questions about the 737 MAX crashes, aircraft certification, and how a pilot might react when a system malfunctions.”
USDOT defended his nomination.
“It bears noting that leadership success in a field often comes without granular, technical knowledge,” Putnam wrote. “Surveying the leadership of the aviation field supports this fact overwhelmingly. Of the 10 largest commercial airline CEOs, only one is a former pilot.”
Washington this week won backing of three former FAA administrators and the chief executive of Frontier Airlines.
Senate Commerce chair Maria Cantwell plans to hold a confirmation vote for Washington soon, arguing he is the right candidate to change FAA culture and ensure accountability: “I definitely don’t think he represents the status quo,” she said.