President Biden’s embattled pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) participated in his confirmation hearing before Congress amid a series of technological challenges for the agency.


Phil Washington, whose nomination was first announced by Biden nearly eight months ago, appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on March 1. 


While Democrats largely seemed supportive, Washington was pressed by Republican senators on why he’s qualified to lead an agency that urgently needs to address a slew of complex challenges – including IT modernization issues and workforce shortages. 


Washington, the current CEO of the Denver International Airport (DIA), has held leadership roles at municipal transit organizations, including in Denver and Los Angeles, focused on bus and rail lines. He also led the Biden-Harris transition team for the Department of Transportation. 


Before his work in transportation, Washington served in the military for 24 years.


While he has worked in transportation-related positions since 2000, Washington had no experience in the aviation industry before joining DIA nearly two years ago – a major concern among committee members.


The hearing for Washington comes after a year of the FAA operating without a permanent administrator. 


In that time, the agency has contended with several problems that have plagued travelers and the airline industry, such as recent near-collisions, crucial staffing shortages, and malfunctions of aging technology that have caused major air travel disruption.


“The FAA is at a crossroads – an agency that must protect the safest era in aviation, modernize its technology, lift employee morale while staffing up, and maintain its global leadership in aviation,” Washington testified in front of the committee. “However, to accomplish all these things, we need permanent leadership at the top of the FAA to address the challenges that we have seen in the last several years.”


“If confirmed, I will draw on a career spanning almost 45 years to be that leader … and leave the FAA better than I found it,” he said. 


failure of the 30-year-old NOTAM system led to the first nationwide ground-stop since the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks – showcasing just one-way aging industry technology is being stretched beyond its limits by increased volume. 


Now, the FAA is planning to dramatically accelerate replacing the safety system.


There have been recent near-collisions on U.S. runways, prompting Federal safety investigators to open multiple inquiries. Air traffic control is staffed at the lowest level in decades, and key roles at U.S. airlines pared down amid the COVID-19 pandemic has not ramped up to meet current outsized travel demand.


The FAA has been under the leadership of Billy Nolen, holding an acting administrator position, since April – when former President Trump’s FAA leader nominee, Stephen Dickson, stepped down. 

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.