By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A leading U.S. Senate Democrat on Wednesday said Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington has what it takes to “move a big bureaucracy” as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) looks to improve aviation safety, but Republicans questioned his limited aviation experience.
At Washington’s nomination hearing, Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, said President Joe Biden’s choice must make a “clear commitment” to implement sweeping legislation passed in 2020 to reform how the FAA certifies new airplanes after two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes killed 346 people.
Democrats control the Senate by a 51-49 margin and none have publicly opposed Washington’s nomination. Cantwell said after the hearing she did not know if Washington had the votes for confirmation.
The FAA has been without a permanent administrator for 11 months, and Washington pledged to continue to implement certification reforms and would “look to accelerate the outstanding things that have not been completed.”
“We feel that industry and FAA got too cozy,” Cantwell said. She said Washington’s experience as a “manager of large organizations with thousands of employees gives you a very good sense of some of the challenges of moving a big bureaucracy.”
Senator Ted Cruz, the panel’s top Republican, criticized Washington’s record at transit agencies and aviation experience.
“President Biden should nominate someone with serious aviation safety experience, which is what the flying public deserves,” Cruz said.
Colorado Democratic Senator John Hickenlooper hailed Washington as “not an airline industry insider using this role as a position for the industry to be policing itself.”
Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen also said she had concerns about Washington’s aviation experience.
The FAA has come under fire after a series of near miss incidents. Acting FAA administrator Billy Nolen said last month he was forming a team of experts to review air safety and will hold a safety summit.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) isinvestigating a series of serious close calls including a nearcollision in January between FedEx and SouthwestAirlines planes in Austin and a runway incursion at New York’s JFK Airport.
In January, the FAA halted all departing passenger airline flights for nearly two hours because of a computeroutage, the first nationwide ground stop of its kind since Sept.11, 2001.
“These are serious safety concerns at the FAA,” Cantwell said. “It’s at an important inflection point, it’s got a lot of big challenges.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio)