On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee delayed its confirmation vote for Phil Washington—President Biden’s pick to head the FAA.
A controversial nominee, Washington’s vote has been in limbo for months as he faces strong resistance from several lawmakers concerned about his lack of aviation experience. Senate Commerce Committee Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been at the center of the criticism.
“I am glad to hear that the committee is delaying consideration of the nomination of Phil Washington,” Cruz said. “I think every member of this committee knows that Mr. Washington is not qualified for the position for which he is nominated.”
The delay comes as three members of the committee’s majority were still undecided on whether to back the nomination.
Senate Commerce Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said the committee would not vote to advance Washington’s nomination until “more information” comes forward. “We will have this debate in the future. Mr. Washington is qualified. He has the support of other former heads of the FAA who also were not pilots,” she said.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Sen. Cruz and Sen. Ted Budd (R-North Carolina) wrote an op-ed noting, “The FAA, on an average day, is responsible for ensuring safe air travel for more than 45,000 flights and nearly 3 million airline passengers. With the stakes so high, it’s irresponsible to entrust the role of protecting millions of Americans who fly with a person who needs on-the-job training. Yet, that’s exactly what we have with President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as FAA administrator, Phil Washington.”
Cruz and Budd also pointed out Washington’s inability to answer basic aviation questions on topics such as safety, pilot certification, pilot licensing, and airports during his nomination hearing.
“Unlike other FAA administrators, he does not have decades of aviation experience. Washington has never flown a plane, never worked for an airline, and never worked for a company that manufactures or maintains aircraft.”
As CEO of Denver International Airport—a role he has held since 2021, Washington primarily oversees non-aviation matters, such as the airport’s shops, restaurants, parking, and buildings.
Washington’s resume also includes a number of transportation positions, mostly focused on bus and rail lines. He previously served 24 years in the U.S. Army, achieving the rank of command sergeant major—leading republicans to question whether he’d be considered a civilian (a requirement to serve as FAA chief). If not considered a civilian, Washington would need a waiver from Congress allowing him to lead the agency—something Republicans would not support.
Several other Republicans, including 14 licensed pilots, have also called for the withdrawal of his nomination in writing, saying, “While Mr. Washington honorably served our nation in the Army, he did not serve in an aviation unit. He is not a pilot, has zero aviation safety experience, and is entirely unqualified to lead the federal agency responsible for keeping the flying public safe.”
However, not all are against Washington. Democrats have largely supported Washington’s nomination. During his confirmation hearing, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called Republicans’ objections “a hatchet job” and “a smear campaign,” saying they were “trying desperately to turn every aspect of his career into a scandal.”
Additionally, Washington received support from aviation worker unions, Denver-based Frontier Airlines, and family members of crash victims who died on Ethiopian Air Flight 302.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said, “The FAA needs to have a leader as soon as possible,”—a sentiment held by many in the wake of recent challenges faced by the agency, including flight delays, a NOTAM system shutdown, staffing shortages, and several near-misses at U.S. airports.
Since the agency has been without a permanent leader for more than a year, lawmakers are urging swift action. Sen. Cruz has pushed the idea for the administration to nominate current Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen, calling him a much more qualified candidate.
“He has multiple certifications in aviation safety, he’s a pilot. He was the choice of President Biden to be acting administrator,” Mr. Cruz said. “I have every confidence that this committee would move [Mr. Nolen’s] nomination swiftly and that he would be confirmed with a substantial bipartisan vote.”