President Joe Biden intends to nominate Michael Whitaker, who currently works at an air taxi developer but has decades of airline experience, to lead the Federal Aviation Administration.
The White House on 7 September announced Biden’s intention to nominate Whitaker but does not say when that nomination might occur.
If confirmed by the US Senate, Whitaker, whose experience also includes time as an FAA deputy, will fill a role left vacant after former FAA administrator Steve Dickson left the job in 2022.
Following Dickson’s departure, the FAA was led first by acting administrator Billy Nolen, who left that job this year to join Archer Aviation as chief safety officer. Polly Trottenberg has been the agency’s acting chief since June.
Biden in July 2022 had nominated Phil Washington, an airport executive, to be administrator. But Washington withdrew his name amid Republican pushback.
Whitaker is currently chief operating officer at Hyundai Motor’s air taxi development subsidiary Supernal, which has in recent months been undertaking expansion in the USA. Supernal is based in Washington state and is developing a 4-5 passenger electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, with a service-entry goal of 2028.
From 2013 to 2016, Whitaker was deputy administrator at the FAA, a role in which he oversaw the agency’s so-called NextGen effort to modernise air traffic control.
Earlier, Whitaker was chief executive at InterGlobe Enterprises, which operates travel companies including Indian discount airline Indigo. He also held several executive jobs during 15 years working at United Airlines, and started his career as an attorney at Trans World Airlines.
Some airlines and aviation groups are endorsing Biden’s choice, expressing optimism Whitaker can help the FAA address infrastructure issues that have recently plagued the US air travel system.
United Airlines says Whitaker “has deep aviation expertise and a solid reputation as a problem solver. We urge the US Senate to move swiftly on his confirmation process”.
“Whitaker has extensive experience working on a range of priorities, including NextGen modernisation, at both the FAA and at major airlines,” adds airline trade group Airlines for America. Whitaker also understands “the collaborative partnership between industry and government”, the group adds.
The Regional Airline Association’s CEO Faye Malarkey Black says Whitaker is the “kind of roll-up-your-sleeves leader that FAA needs”.
The FAA declines to comment.
US pilot union Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) uses Whitaker’s nomination to highlight what it views as the need to maintain existing pilot-training rules. The union has been battling efforts to loosen a rule requiring most new US airline pilots have 1,500h of flight experience.
Whitaker “understands that the most important safety feature on any aircraft is two highly-trained and well-rested pilots, and the paramount need to protect current pilot safety training regulations”, ALPA says.
Whitaker will face no shortage of challenges if confirmed by the Senate. The FAA has faced recent intense criticism for staff shortages at air traffic control towers – a problem that some airlines allege has contributed to recent significant operational disruptions.
The FAA also faces the task of finding ways to prevent what has been a string of recent near-collisions involving aircraft at US airports. Meanwhile, the agency has started the process of crafting regulations to oversee air taxis, an entirely new class of aircraft.
“Modernising the nation’s air traffic control system, ensuring robust air traffic controller staffing levels – particularly in Florida, to reduce congestion and delays – and addressing recent safety issues, including a rise in runway incursions, are all critical issues needing immediate attention,” says National Air Carrier Association CEO George Novak. “Whitaker is extremely well-positioned to provide the leadership the agency needs.”