Biden Nominates Whitaker For FAA Administrator
President Joe Biden on Sept. 7 nominated Michael Whitaker to lead the FAA, which has functioned for the past year and a half under acting administrators.
Now vice president and COO of advanced air mobility (AAM) vehicle developer Supernal, Whitaker previously served as FAA deputy administrator, the agency’s second-highest position, from 2013-16. Pending confirmation by the U.S. Senate, he would succeed Polly Trottenberg, a U.S. Transportation Department deputy secretary who is serving as acting FAA administrator.
The FAA has functioned without a permanently appointed leader since former Administrator Steve Dickson stepped down midway through his five-year term in March 2022. The agency tapped Billy Nolen, previously associate administrator of Aviation Safety, to replace Dickson in an acting capacity. Nolen left the agency this spring, taking a job in June as chief safety officer with AAM company Archer Aviation.
Biden’s nomination of Denver International Airport CEO Phillip Washington to serve as FAA administrator failed to garner support in the Senate, leading Washington to withdraw his name from consideration in March.
Whitaker would rejoin the FAA as it develops mitigation strategies to cope with ongoing incidents of runway incursions at major airports that prompted Nolen to convene a high-level Safety Summit of aviation trade organizations in March. The Senate is now in the process of drafting the next FAA reauthorization bill; the current legislation to renew the agency’s funding and authorities passed in 2018 and expires this month. The U.S. House passed its version of the bill in July.
Previous to joining Supernal, a Hyundai Motor Group company that is developing a family of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, in April 2020, Whitaker served as Group CEO of India-based InterGlobe Enterprises, which operates LCC IndiGo, as a senior executive with United Airlines, and as an attorney with TWA. During his stint as FAA deputy administrator, he led the Nextgen air traffic control modernization effort and earned his private pilot’s license.
The evolving AAM sector has proven to be fertile ground for former FAA executives. Michael Huerta, Whitaker’s former boss at the FAA, was appointed to the boards of partners Joby Aviation and Delta Airlines this year after completing a full term as FAA administrator in 2018. In February, Supernal announced that it had hired Jay Merkle, previously executive director of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, as senior director of regulatory affairs.
Trade organizations across the aviation spectrum, including labor, management, operator, and manufacturing groups, welcomed the nomination and urged prompt consideration of Whitaker by the Senate.
“Michael Whitaker has extensive experience working on a range of priorities including NextGen modernization at both the FAA and at major airlines,” Airlines for America President and CEO Nicholas Calio said. “He has a deep understanding of and appreciation for the collaborative partnership between industry and government that is necessary to ensure air travel remains the safest mode of transportation in the world.”
NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen, who leads the largest U.S. business aviation trade organization, was similarly complimentary of Whitaker. “Mike Whitaker has long been an outspoken aviation safety advocate and champion of innovation in the industry, who demonstrated during his time as deputy administrator at the FAA that he is a proven leader who delivers results,” Bolen said. “We enthusiastically support his confirmation as FAA administrator.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who was instrumental in defeating Washington’s nomination as ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, issued a statement reserving judgment on Whitaker.
“In June, I urged President Biden to put the flying public first and immediately name a ‘serious and well-qualified person with substantial aviation experience’ to serve as FAA administrator,” Cruz said. “After several near-misses, chronic air traffic controller staffing shortages, and ongoing problems with implementing new technology at the FAA, we must carefully evaluate Mike Whitaker’s qualifications, experience, and temperament to determine whether he is the right person to lead the agency at this critical juncture.”
Nolen, the former FAA administrator, told Aviation Week in July that he thinks Whitaker is the “right guy to be able to carry the nation and the FAA into the future,” adding that he hopes Whitaker “gets rapid confirmation and is seated as quickly as possible.”
Nolen also described the nomination of the Supernal executive as a vote of confidence in the fast-growing AAM industry.
“What it says is that the U.S. is very committed to its global leadership position in the world, full-stop,” Nolen said. “And now as we project to that future of trying to enable all things new and novel, having someone from the industry with that level of experience...sends a strong message not only to nation, but to the whole world that America is truly focused and prioritized around enabling the future.”