- by cnn
- 06 Dec 2023
When Michael Whitaker last worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, his tasks included bringing air traffic control - which tracked airplanes using strips of paper - into the 21st century.
Whitaker served as deputy FAA administrator seven years ago, and in his confirmation hearing for the agency's top job Wednesday faced questions about that project and how he would handle new, complicated issues involving controllers, pilots and planes. Those issues included staffing shortages, pilot training standards and the FAA's safety culture.
If ultimately confirmed to a five-year term, Whitaker would become the agency's first Senate-confirmed chief in 18 months - a level of authority aviation leaders say is essential to FAA stability. Key items awaiting the administrator's eye include safety after a series of airliner close calls at US runways, as well as tackling employee shortages in air traffic control facilities, cockpits, airports and maintenance hangars.
No senators voiced outright opposition to confirming Whitaker, an airline executive and attorney who was most recently chief operating officer at an electric air taxi maker - an emerging technology that could one day ferry travelers from their homes to the airport through the sky. The issue will cross his desk in the years ahead. He told senators that his experience in the No. 2 FAA job and training as a recreational pilot armed him with relevant knowledge to focus on the agency's safety priorities and worker shortages. That job, he told lawmakers, gave him "significant technical knowledge of the complex systems that make up the national airspace."
That experience would be tested immediately as the FAA seeks to rebuild its air traffic control hiring and training pipeline. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says the FAA has 3,000 ATC vacancies. Washington spending fights threaten that progress, because if the federal government shuts down in mid-November, the FAA would be forced to pause its training programs.
"I would view my role as administrator as chief recruitment officer, certainly for FAA but also for the industry," Whitaker told the Senate Commerce Committee. He said he would look at the idea of creating a second FAA training academy to relieve a bottleneck limiting the number of controllers the agency can hire each year.
Several senators pressed Whitaker on proposed changes to the pilot training rules that have gummed up a major aviation policy bill. The Senate stalemate nearly locked the FAA out of access to its bank account used to fund airport and technology improvements.
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