President Joe Biden’s pick to run the Federal Aviation Administration finally got a hearing Wednesday on his nomination, with Democrats praising him as a skilled leader of large transportation bureaucracies while Republicans called him unqualified because of his relatively thin aviation experience.
If confirmed by the Senate, Phillip Washington would take over an agency dealing with safety concerns including several recent close calls between planes, understaffing that has contributed to flight delays, and the breakdown of a pilot-alert system that briefly stopped flights nationwide in January.
Washington told the Senate Commerce Committee that safety will be his top priority, and he will “leave the FAA better than I found it.”
Washington is a longtime transit official in Los Angeles and Denver who has served as CEO of Denver International Airport — the third-busiest in the world — since July 2021.
Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called him “an experienced, mission-driven leader who has successfully led three of the largest and most complex transportation organizations in the country.”
Another Democrat, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, introduced Washington as someone with experience in turning around struggling bureaucracies.
“He takes on the big, complex problems and gets results,” said Hickenlooper. “He’s not an airline industry insider using this position as a revolving door for the industry to police itself.”
Republicans, however, seized on Washington’s short time in the aviation field. They noted that he is not a pilot, in contrast to some of his recent predecessors and the current acting administrator, Billy Nolen.
“He does not have any experience in aviation safety,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “This quite simply is a position he is not qualified for.”
Cruz discounted Washington’s job running the Denver airport, telling the nominee, “You are in charge of coffee shops, clothing stores and newsstands,” but not pilots, aircraft mechanics or air traffic controllers.
“He is the wrong choice to lead the FAA and restore America’s confidence in this struggling agency,” added Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
Other Republicans peppered Washington by reading detailed questions about aviation — such as the number of special-use airspace types, and what causes a plane to stall — which he was mostly unable to answer.
Republicans also highlighted Washington’s involvement in an investigation into corruption at the Los Angeles transit agency that he ran for six years. Washington’s name appeared in a search warrant, but he said no law enforcement agencies have contacted him about the matter.
Republicans also brought up a new lawsuit that accuses Washington and other Denver officials with pushing an airport director who is Hispanic out of his job after he complained that white co-workers were paid more.
Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz said the Republican attacks were unfounded and irrelevant.
“This is a hatchet job,” he said.
Biden originally nominated Washington in early July 2022, but he failed to get a hearing even though Democrats controlled the Senate. The president re-nominated him in January — choosing the man who led Biden’s transition team for the Transportation Department, the FAA’s parent agency, after the 2020 election.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer vowed “to break this logjam” and clear the way for Washington’s confirmation.
The FAA has been led by acting administrator Nolen since former President Donald Trump’s choice, former pilot and Delta Air Lines executive Stephen Dickson, stepped down last March in the middle of his five-year term.
Washington was CEO of the Los Angeles County bus and rail transit authority, Metro, for six years before taking the Denver airport job. He was also a longtime executive at the Denver transportation district, including serving as CEO from 2009 to 2015. He served in the U.S. Army for 24 years, which Republicans say means he needs a waiver from Congress to run the civilian FAA.