Republicans grilled President Biden's nominee to lead the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Phil Washington, during a contentious hearing Wednesday.
Washington's experience with aviation is limited to 20 months as the CEO of Denver's airport.
His confirmation battle comes at a fraught time for the airline industry, following a series of logistical meltdowns and near-collisions that have shaken consumer confidence.
With all of that in mind, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee Ted Cruz (R-TX) sought to poke holes in Washington's thin record with pointed questions about aviation safety. Washington, a 24-year Army veteran, has no training as a pilot -- as he readily admitted.
“Senator, I’m not a pilot — I don’t know if I can answer that particular question,” Washington said.
While Republicans were skeptical of Washington's qualifications, Democrats defended Washington and argued that the FAA vacancy urgently needs to be filled. Washington also emphasized that "permanent leadership" is needed.
Democrats sought to spin Washington's inexperience with the airline industry as a strength.
"He’s not an airline industry insider using his role as a position for the industry to police itself,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) said. “The challenges facing the FAA are those of managing a large, complex bureaucracy badly in need of modernization, and certainly in that respect he’s no novice.”
Republicans had their argument prepared for them by a series of disconcerting failures.
The FAA announced a "safety call to action" after a recent uptick in near-collisions. The latest incident happened Monday at Boston's Logan International Airport when a JetBlue plane nearly crashed into a private jet.
“Ted Cruz is right,” Alan Diehl, a former crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said. "We were very lucky that we’re not looking at hundreds of casualties in all three of those incidents," he added, referring to recent incidents in New York, Honolulu, and Austin.
While safety is a rising concern, travelers have also dealt with more frequent delays and cancellations. An FAA glitch led to all domestic flights being grounded in January for the first time in 20 years. Southwest Airlines suffered a historic meltdown in December that led to 17,000 flights being canceled.
“The FAA can’t afford to be led by someone who needs on-the-job training,” Sen. Ted Budd (R-Nc.) said at Wednesday's hearing. “And for that reason, I’m going to be opposing your nomination.”
Republicans are threatening to deny Washington a waiver for a federal requirement that the FAA administrator be a civilian, but Democrats claim a waiver isn't necessary.