He’ll need the vision of George Washington, the patience of Martha Washington, and the toughness of Denzel Washington.

Phillip A. Washington has been nominated as the next ‘permanent’ Administrator of the US Federal Aviation Administration.

If confirmed by the Senate, he’ll be the 23rd Administrator since the FAA’s founding in 1958 as a replacement for the Civil Aeronautics Administration.

‘Permanent’ may be a misleading term, as the average tenure of an FAA Administrator has been less than three years. Michael Huerta was in place for six years, appointed by Obama and hung around awhile until Trump was dissuaded from appointing his personal pilot to run the agency. The 1st female Administrator, Jane Garvey, and the 2nd, Marion Blakely, both survived the full five-year appointment.

In the past 15 years, four of the seven Administrators have never shed the ‘Acting’ tag. (But aren’t we all, in reality?)

It’s a tough job. Highly visible to the traveling public, national aviation system problems – real or perceived – are magnified by soundbite-seeking politicians. You may be blamed for issues you did not create or which you cannot control. For the first few years, it was a Cabinet-level role initially, but now the FAA must battle for funding through its intermediary DoT.

Like several of the early Administrators, Phil Washington brings a military background – 24 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as Command Sergeant Major (the highest non-commissioned officer rank an enlisted soldier can achieve). And as with some of the more recent Administrators, he comes from a career in transportation, including chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and most recently as CEO of Denver International Airport, third busiest in the world. Washington led President-elect Biden’s Transportation Department transition team.

The 64-year-old disabled vet’s educational journey included the Harvard Kennedy School, Webster University, Columbia College, and “the streets of southside Chicago.”

At 800 Independence Avenue SW, Phil Washington is walking into a maelstrom of challenges:

First, calm the current airline chaos. Triggered by the ill-managed Covid pandemic, and exacerbated by a rush to capture pent-up consumer demand, the airlines, airports and air traffic system are plagued by shortages of qualified and willing personnel, resulting in thousands of flights cancelled and travelers frustrated and furious. This is not merely a U.S. problem, but the FAA is theoretically in a better position to assemble the few dominant North American carriers to hash out a viable, incremental pathway back to normalcy.

"Over 50% of our delay minutes and 75% of our cancels in the past four months were because of FAA traffic management initiatives," estimated United's Chief Operations Officer, Jon Roitman. But in a meeting last month with airline CEOs, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stated, "Air traffic control staffing issues do not explain the majority of delays and cancellations we've been seeing."

Gentlemen, just get on the same page and work it out together.

Second, restore trust in the FAA. The trust of the flying public, the trust of the industry, and the trust of peer regulators around the world. The damage of the Boeing MAX debacle still ripples. Other agencies such as EASA are taking the lead in emerging areas such as eVTOL. The FAA needs to adopt a more collaborative attitude and be receptive to innovative ideas from peer regulatory agencies.

Third, address the shortages of pilots, cabin crew, maintenance techs, controllers, etc. A key part of this should be transitioning away from the outdated, prescriptive, hours-based licensing requirements to a competency-based framework.

The FAA is to be commended for its new ‘Be ATC’ recruiting campaign to hire the next generation of air traffic controllers. Now let’s train the successful applicants using next-gen training methodologies and technologies.

Fourth, embrace the future. eVTOL and other electric aircraft. Low-boom supersonic. Sustainable fuels. Integrated transport systems combining air and rail.

Fifth, rebuild the FAA training organization. There have been wholesale changes in personnel in the past year, and valuable expertise and experience is being lost while the aviation training community drifts without clear guidance. These are the very people who are needed to create the competency-based framework of the future.

That’s our view from outside the Beltway Bubble, Mr. Washington. We expect you’ll get plenty of advice from other stakeholders.

Back in March, we invited your predecessor, Captain Dickson, to keynote the World Aviation Training Summit (WATS), the largest single annual gathering of airline and aviation training experts. The next day, he resigned as Administrator. (We don’t think there is any linkage between the two.)

As your agenda quickly fills on your first day as Administrator, please keep in mind 18 April, the first day of WATS 2023 – the 25th such event. The aviation safety and training community would be delighted if you could join us.


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