President Joe Biden's pick to run the Federal Aviation Administration is finally getting a hearing Wednesday on his nomination, with members of a Senate committee divided along party lines about the choice.
Republican senators said Phillip Washington, a former transit official who has been CEO of Denver International Airport since July 2021, lacks the aviation experience to run the FAA, which is responsible for safety of the U.S. airspace and recently suffered an outage that briefly stopped flights nationwide.
“He is the wrong choice to lead the FAA and restore America’s confidence in this struggling agency,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said in a prepared statement released before the hearing.
Republicans have also highlighted Washington's involvement in an investigation into corruption at the Los Angeles transit agency that he ran for six years. And in recent days they have seized on a 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.
The top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, Ted Cruz of Texas, tried unsuccessfully to delay the hearing, saying the committee needed more time to investigate the nominee. He accused the administration of treating the FAA position as a patronage job and leaving the agency without a Senate-confirmed leader since last March.
But Democrat John Hickenlooper of Colorado introduced Washington as someone who can turn around struggling bureaucracies including big-city transit agencies and the busy Denver airport.
“He takes on the big, complex problems and gets results,” said Hickenlooper, who also tried to turn the nominee's relatively thin aviation resume into a positive. "He's not an airline industry insider using this position as a revolving door for the industry to police itself.”
Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called Washington “an experienced, mission-driven leader who has successfully led three of the largest and most complex transportation organizations in the country.”
Washington's nomination stalled last year, failing to get a hearing even though Democrats controlled the Senate.
All the while, the FAA faced criticism about being understaffed as air travel rebounded last year, contributing to flight delays and cancellations. Republicans seized on the FAA's lack of a permanent leader in January, when an outage of a safety-alert system briefly brought air travel to a near standstill nationwide.
Biden could have found another pick when the new Congress convened, but instead he renewed Washington's nomination — 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 an acting administrator, Billy 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.