Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has been prodding the White House to drop its pick to head up the Federal Aviation Administration, on Wednesday floated simply elevating the current acting head of the agency — Billy Nolen, a former airline pilot who previously led the agency’s safety organization.
Cruz, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee that is vetting Biden pick Phil Washington, speculated that Nolen, who is serving as acting administrator, would likely win swift bipartisan support for the role if nominated by the White House. Washington, who led transit agencies for two decades before becoming the CEO of Denver International Airport in 2021, has faced Republican criticism over his relative lack of aviation experience.
Cruz has been relentless in pushing against Washington, especially during a time when the FAA is facing a worrying spate of close calls on runways across the country.
“A point I would like to make to my Democratic colleagues on this committee, do you think Phil Washington could come anywhere close to Acting Administrator Nolen’s knowledge? I think the answer is no,” Cruz said, after asking Nolen to spell out his long career as a pilot. “I think it’s clear that Phil Washington is not going to have the votes. I think a nominee like Acting Administrator Nolen would receive widespread bipartisan support and could get confirmed quickly.”
At one point during the hearing Nolen made it clear that he isn’t angling for the job.
“I do believe that Phil Washington is fully qualified, I support the president and I support the nomination,” Nolen said.
During the hearing, Senate Commerce Democrats circulated a letter penned by three former top FAA officials — none of whom were pilots — voicing their support for Washington. It was signed by former FAA Administrators Michael Huerta and Jane Garvey, and former Acting Administrator Linda Daschle, who all served under Democratic administrations, saying that Washington “has the the necessary experience to be administrator.”
“The FAA has gone through a difficult period and Mr. Washington offers a fresh perspective for setting a new course,” Huerta, Garvey and Daschle wrote. “Having a 30,000-foot view does not require getting a pilot’s license.”
Beyond Cruz, some Democrats on the Commerce Committee are not fully convinced. Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) said she hasn’t yet decided on the nomination and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) also raised concerns about Washington’s experience during his nomination hearing last week. While some Republicans vocally oppose Washington, not everyone agrees with Cruz. Aviation Subcommittee ranking member Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) said he’s also undecided.
Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) argued on Wednesday that Washington’s lack of ties to the aviation industry will assist ongoing congressional efforts to ensure that the FAA is fully independent from the airlines and aircraft manufacturers it regulates, particularly after the Boeing 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019.
“I think this notion of running a large organization with transportation background is really important because there’s some things here you’re trying to change culturally,” Cantwell said. “I definitely think he doesn’t represent the status quo and sometimes you get people with very long aviation careers and they’re the ones who basically go along with the system we’re trying to change.”
Cantwell hasn’t announced a committee vote on Washington’s nomination — a sign that Democrats may not be aligned.
Senate Democrats largely did not weigh in on Washington’s nomination last Congress, when he faced questions over lawsuits and search warrants related to his time leading the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But after the White House renominated Washington in January, Cantwell announced her support and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Washington’s confirmation a priority after a FAA computer system meltdown led to the first nationwide grounding of flights since September 11, 2001.
“With recent events, including airline troubles and last week’s tech problem, this agency needs a leader confirmed by the Senate immediately,” Schumer said in January.