President Joe Biden is expected to nominate former FAA Deputy Chief Mike Whitaker as the agency’s next administrator, according to numerous reports.
The nomination could come as soon as this week, the Wall Street Journal reported.
A White House official, however, said no official decision on an FAA Administrator has been made yet.
Rumors of Whitaker’s nomination began circulating in May following the withdrawal of Biden’s first pick to head the agency, Phillip Washington. Critics of Washington, namely Senate Republicans, argued he lacked the experience and qualifications to head the FAA at a time when the agency faces significant challenges such as staffing shortages, safety concerns, and outdated technology.
While Washington failed to win bipartisan support, it’s unclear if Whitaker will face the same opposition. Unlike his predecessor, Whitaker is a private pilot and has roughly 20 years of aviation experience—including positions with TWA in New York and Washington, and 15 years serving as an executive with United Airlines. During the Obama Administration, Whitaker acted as the FAA’s Deputy Administrator under Michael Huerta from 2013-2016 where he was primarily focused on NextGen modernization programs and initiatives.
Whitaker now serves as chief operating officer at Supernal—a Hyundai subsidiary and one of many companies developing Advanced Air Mobility eVTOL vehicles.
The FAA has been without a permanent leader for more than a year. Former Acting Administrator Billy Nolen led the agency during much of the Biden administration before departing this summer to join eVTOL startup Archer Aviation as its safety chief.
Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg is currently serving as acting administrator until a new nominee is announced. Trottenberg noted her focus is to ensure a safe, smooth summer travel season and work with whoever is nominated to serve for a five-year term as FAA administrator, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Whoever is nominated will face a myriad of issues as the FAA has been under intense scrutiny for the past year. Several alarming near miss incidents at U.S. airports sparked public concern and prompted the agency to hold a safety summit to discuss ways to mitigate such occurrences.
What’s more, the agency’s lack of air traffic controllers have contributed to thousands of flight delays and cancellations. Recent reports show that staffing and training for ATC controllers has remained a challenge for the FAA and new findings show that 77 percent of critical facilities are staffed below the agency’s 85 percent threshold. Additionally, an audit of the agency noted that control centers do not have enough supervisors and controllers are working mandatory overtime including six-day workweeks to cover for staff shortages. Adding to the problems, 26 percent of the FAA’s 13,300 controllers are trainees.
Without a permanent FAA leader, much of the agency’s criticism has fallen on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who says the agency is working to hire more controllers. Buttigieg also said the FAA is using new technology to open more direct flight routes, “which means less flight time and ultimately can contribute to less congestion.”
Meanwhile, Congress is expected to pass a new FAA reauthorization bill by September 30. Industry officials are calling for more funding for the FAA which would help replace the antiquated technology and hire more air traffic controllers.