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North America

Biden Nominates Former United Executive Michael Whitaker as FAA Administrator

Edward Russell
September 7th, 2023 at 11:19 AM EDT

United planes at Denver Airport

President Joe Biden on Thursday nominated Michael Whitaker to lead the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The move comes more than five months after the president’s first nominee, Denver Airport CEO Phil Washington, withdrew amid questions over his aviation experience.

Whitaker checks many of the boxes that Washington lacked. He was a deputy administrator at the FAA working on the agency’s NextGen air traffic control upgrades from 2013-2016, and a senior United Airlines executive for more than a decade until 2009. Whitaker is currently chief operating officer of urban air mobility startup Supernal, which is owned by Hyundai.

The FAA has been without a confirmed administrator since March 2022 when Steve Dickson left the agency. Billy Nolen was named acting administrator by the Biden administration a month later, and left the FAA this summer for a new role at electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, startup Archer Aviation. Polly Trottenberg has been acting administrator since July.

If confirmed, Whitaker will step into a challenging situation. The FAA’s five-year funding bill is stalled in Congress amid disagreements over the training hours and retirement age of commercial airline pilots, and long-distance flights at Washington’s Reagan National airport. It also faces an air traffic controller shortage that even Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said will take years to sort out — if it gets funding from Congress. And, longer term, the agency must address with how to integrate eVTOLs and other new urban air mobility vehicles safely into the national air traffic system.

Industry and labor groups widely applauded Whitaker’s nomination.

“As passenger travel continues to grow and Americans rely daily on cargo shipments, the [national airspace] system must keep up,” Airlines for America (A4A) CEO Nicholas Calio said in a statement. “New entrants, new technologies and innovations must be integrated into the system. A permanent, confirmed FAA Administrator is needed to provide leadership, stability and vision.”

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which is pushing to maintain the status quo when it comes to safety requirements for pilots, said Whitaker “understands” what is needed to keep airline cockpits safe.

Whitaker received his private pilots license in 2014, according to the general aviation trade group the Air Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

One issue Whitaker may need to weigh in on, and which could prove controversial, is airline consolidation. The Department of Transportation, under which the FAA sits, has joined the Department of Justice objecting to the proposed merger of JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines. A a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department’s to stop the combination is scheduled to begin in October.

However, Whitaker has spoken positively of airline consolidation in the past. During his tenure at United, he argued in favor of mergers to reduce the number of U.S. network carriers down to three from six at the time. That forecast proved prescient as the industry did consolidate into three network airlines beginning with the combination of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines in 2008, and later United and Continental Airlines, and American Airlines and US Airways.

JetBlue and Spirit executives have argued that their merger is needed to create an airline with the scale necessary to compete with those past mergers, as well as the combination of Southwest Airlines and AirTran in 2010.

“We believe Michael is the kind of ‘roll up your sleeves’ leader that FAA needs to meet this moment,” Regional Airline Association (RAA) CEO Faye Malarkey Black said. The group’s members face a captain shortage that is contributing to the loss of air service in small cities across the U.S.

The story has been updated with additional details and statements on Whitaker’s nomination.

Edward Russell
September 7th, 2023 at 11:19 AM EDT

Tags: North America

Photo credit: A United Airlines Boeing 737 taxis by the control tower at Denver International Airport. Denver International Airport

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