The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is set for a change in leadership. On July 6th, the White House nominated the Chief Executive Officer of Denver International Airport, Phil Washington, to take over the agency’s reins and its estimated 45,000 employees.
Washington’s nomination as the new leader comes after the previous head, Steve Dickson, announced his resignation midway through his five-year term towards the end of March, citing personal issues and wanting to devote the remainder of his time to his family instead. The FAA’s Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Billy Nolen, was the Acting Administrator until a new leader was found.
About Phil Washington
At 17, Chicago-native Phillip Washington enlisted in the US Army. He spent 24 years working to achieve the rank of Command Sergeant Major that highlights his managerial, problem-solving, and motivational skills. Before leading Denver Airport, one of the busiest in the world, for a little less than a year, Washinton had spent six years leading Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And before that, he had dedicated another 16 years at the Denver Regional Transit District, the first 10 as Assistant General Manager and the remaining six as General Manager.
Washington is also familiar with the Biden administration, having headed the Biden-Harris transition team for the Department of Transportation in late 2020 and early 2021. During his time as the lead, Washington was handed the mammoth project of leading the $770 million Great Hall terminal project, which unfortunately proved controversial due to the delays and cost overruns. Despite the setbacks, the Great Hall project is currently undergoing Phase 2, and the entire project is also under budget and scheduled to be completed in 2024.
When confirmed as the new lead, Washington boasts of being the FAA’s first permanent Black leader and will lead the agency for the next five years as the standard fixed term. And the slight lack of aviation background is not unprecedented, as previous Administrators such as Langhorne Bond, Mike Huerta, and Jane Garvey did not have aviation backgrounds but still led the agency well.
Although Washington’s resume may be thin on aviation, it and his leadership skills would prove advantageous in setting the FAA on the right track after so many controversies. Photo: Getty Images
Recovering the FAA’s Reputation
Washington’s entry into the agency comes at a direst time, as the FAA has been under intense scrutiny from airline executives and passengers to address grave concerns over the worrying rise in flight cancellations and delays. This past weekend marked the third-straight consecutive week where there was a spike in canceled flights as airlines scrambled to handle the demand for flying with limited operable crews.
The agency and airlines have been blaming each other, much to the confusion and dismay of the affected passengers. Airlines blamed the understaffed air traffic controllers, which the FAA supervises, as the causes of the delays. United Airlines Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Roitman called out the agency by saying:
“The reality is that there are more flights scheduled industrywide than the ATC staffing system can handle. Until that is resolved, we expect the US aviation system will be challenged this summer and beyond.”
Around 2,200 flights were canceled during the July 4th weekend, representing nearly 3% of scheduled flights. Photo: Denver International Airport
On the contrary, the FAA attributes the blame to lousy weather, the airlines’ lack of staffing, and intense flight schedules. The ongoing strikes from flight and cabin crew and the inability for passengers to gain immediate rebookings of their canceled flights have been further proof of an airline staffing issue, as the FAA said in response to Roitman:
“It is unfortunate to see United Airlines conflate weather-related Air Traffic Control measures with ATC staffing issues, which could deceptively imply that a majority of those situations are the result of FAA staffing.”
Undoubtedly, Washington will have a lot on his plate once he is confirmed as the FAA Administrator. Not only would he have to repair the agency’s reputation as still being able to regulate civilian aviation in the US, but he would also have to maintain more robust relationships with airlines and ensure that the aviation industry gets out of the bottomless hole it has somehow sunken into.
Investigation into the Boeing 737 MAX 10 recertification shows FAA employees were either getting too close to or were overpowered by the manufacturers they were tasked to regulate. Photo: Denver International Airport
More unresolved problems
During Steve Dickson’s term, he was heading the FAA in the wake of the two fatal Boeing 737 MAX 10 crashes. Unfortunately, the issue was never truly resolved, and it is now up to Washington to ensure the agency settles these once and for all. One immediate need for action would be discussing with Boeing on the constant ongoing review of new aircraft types like the 777X, and the yet-to-be recertified 737 MAX 10. Multiple investigations into the 737 MAX 10 recertification process revealed too many instances of “regulatory capture,” Washington’s managerial expertise could stop all that before the new standard on cockpit alerts take effect in December.
Another issue the FAA has to clear with Boeing is the resumption of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, which has been paused for more than a year due to manufacturing flaws. And with the Boeing issues aside, Washington also needs to ensure that the FAA has a more concrete plan for implementing 5G C-Band service near airports. Previously the agency announced that mobile phone carriers agreed to delay for an additional year. This would be the window Washington would have to work on to innovate a permanent fix to ensure aircraft technology will not be interfered with.