Aviation Nominee Urged to ‘Shake That Agency’ Out of Gridlock

  • FAA bureaucracy, workforce issues slow down the agency
  • New administrator Phil Washington nominated last week

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Industry and Congress slammed backlogs at the Federal Aviation Administration, arguing such slowdowns hurt operators and thwart progress on new innovation.

The issues are being raised as the agency is poised to gain new leadership. The White House last week announced it would nominate Phil Washington, head of Denver International Airport, to lead the FAA, which has been without a Senate-confirmed leader since March.

Lawmakers from both parties and aviation stakeholders want the new leader to address the agency’s workforce issues and bureaucracy.

“In my 17-and-a-half years of doing this, I have never seen us have the bureaucracy grind the industry to almost a halt,” Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, said of the FAA at a House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing Wednesday. “Policy and guidance has virtually stopped coming out of the agency.”

Committee Chair Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said the FAA needs a manager and “this guy is a manager,” citing the FAA nominee’s work with the transit system in Los Angeles. DeFazio said he planned to talk to Washington later this week.

White House Nominates Denver Airport Chief for Top FAA Post

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
A small plane taxis towards the runway at San Carlos Airport, a municipal airport in Silicon Valley, Calif., on Jan. 19, 2020.

“I’m looking forward to someone who will actually shake that agency up,” DeFazio said. DeFazio said Dickson, the previous Senate-confirmed leader, didn’t get to “unclogging the plumbing” in the agency as it dealt with the pandemic and safety shortcomings at Boeing Co. Dickson stepped down in March, citing the desire to spend more time with family.

General aviation industry groups said development of advanced air mobility technology, such as flying taxis, is dependent on getting agency approvals and regulation, but even traditional aviation manufacturing is stunted by FAA slowdowns.

“Right now, we are already seeing the FAA struggle from an organizational struggle, from an experience perspective, struggle from a regulatory perspective dealing with their legacy mission, much less the complexity of bringing new technologies into our airspace,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), ranking member of the panel’s aviation subcommittee.

‘Perfect Storm’

The FAA has many new engineers and technical experts, with 40% having less than three years experience, as well as many employees still working from home, which has slowed down processes, Bunce said. He called it a “perfect storm.”

A Government Accountability Office last year found the FAA relies on almost 45,000 workers to operate the national airspace, but changes in aviation, such as new technology like drones, require more oversight and new worker skills.

The agency’s workforce challenges have slowed even the usual process of certifying air carriers and air operators. The FAA’s certification queue has more than 500 applications, and it can take up to two years for an operator to get a certificate, deterring people from entering the industry, Timothy Obitts, president and CEO of the National Air Transportation Association, said in testimony for the hearing.

Airlines have also criticized the FAA for controller staffing issues amid recent flight disruptions.

The House panel is beginning its work on the next FAA reauthorization bill, where lawmakers may look to address some of these workforce and innovation challenges. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chair of the aviation subcommittee, said he heard concerns from stakeholders about the FAA’s “mounting workforce issues,” and is looking at what Congress can to do about staffing.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com

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