Transportation

Biden’s FAA nominee pressed on staffing shortages with next shutdown fight looming 

President Biden’s pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Michael Whitaker, was pressed Wednesday during his nomination hearing over several challenges, including staffing shortages at the agency and a potential government shutdown. 

The stopgap measure passed over the weekend offers some temporary relief, funding the agency until mid-November and reauthorizing it until the end of the year. But members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation noted there is uncertainty ahead.  

“Mr. Whitaker, you may find yourself in the unenviable position of being confirmed as FAA administrator and immediately facing the prospect of a government shutdown,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). 

Whitaker noted this would not be his first time working at the FAA during a government shutdown, so he would be prepared for it. But he said it would not be ideal and urged Congress to work to keep the government open.  

“I think the biggest impact that I would point out would be on the training of controllers that would come to a stop and controllers who are in the training program would no longer be in the tower,” Whitaker said, noting air traffic controllers would also lose their paychecks during the shutdown.  

“So I think that’s not the result we would want.” 

During the 35-day shutdown at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019, the Washington Post reported that absenteeism among air traffic controllers rose, causing air delays and cancellations. 

But even without a shutdown, the FAA has struggled to fix staffing shortages that have contributed to waves of delays and cancellations over the past two years.  

“The shortage has been years in the making, but you have my commitment to reduce this backlog,” Whitaker said. 

Whitaker said part of the problem is workforce resilience, and the FAA needs to do a better job of encouraging people to embrace careers in the industry.  

“I think building the workforce pipeline for the aviation industry is a key priority,” he said. “Starting with controller workforce. But also in piloting mechanics, other professions, these are all good professions. We need to cast as wide a net as we can, and we need to build a pipeline of folks coming through to take these jobs. So it is a priority.” 

“I feel part of my job would be to be the chief Recruiting Officer for the FAA but also for the industry,” he added.  

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked if Whitaker could commit to finding a solution to the staffing issue by the end of the year. 

“I will, assuming I have enough time to do that, I will sir,” Whitaker responded.  

Whitaker also repeatedly emphasized his focus on safety, despite attempts from GOP lawmakers to steer the conversation towards the Biden administration’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and inclusive language in aviation.  

Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) asked the nominee if he believed the agency “should be focused on eliminating all references to gender-specific language.” 

“I do think language evolves, you know, we went from stewardesses to flight attendants, and it doesn’t strike me as necessarily out of the ordinary to do that,” Whitaker responded. “But again, my focus is going to be on safety and running the agency effectively.” 

Tags Biden nominee Federal Aviation Administration Joe Biden Raphael Warnock

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