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Biden plans to nominate Denver airport CEO to head the FAA

The Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration building in Washington.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press/File 2015

The White House said Wednesday that President Biden plans to nominate Phillip Washington, the chief executive of Denver International Airport, to lead the Federal Aviation Administration.

Washington is well known to Biden administration figures. In late 2020, he served on Biden’s transition team, leading a group that advised the incoming administration on transportation policy.

The FAA is currently led by acting chief Billy Nolen after former pilot and Delta Air Lines executive Stephen Dickson stepped down March 31.

The FAA has come under criticism for its approval of the Boeing 737 Max jetliner, which was later involved in two deadly crashes, and its slow reaction to fears that new wireless networks could interfere with critical equipment on planes.

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This summer, airlines have accused the FAA of causing many flights to be delayed or canceled, partly because of a shortage of air traffic controllers, a claim disputed by administration officials.

United Airlines blamed the FAA and the nation’s air traffic control system for exacerbating the issues plaguing the industry, saying the agency has been overwhelmed by the volume of flights.

The carrier estimated Wednesday that more than 50 percent of its delay minutes and 75 percent of its cancellations in the past four months were because of FAA actions to manage air traffic and flight capacity. Such initiatives include holding aircraft in flight, assigning specific departure times, ground delays, and reroutings.

“The reality is that there are just more flights scheduled industrywide than the ATC staffing system can handle,” particularly in New York and Florida, Jon Roitman, United’s chief operations officer, told employees in a letter. “Until that is resolved, we expect the US aviation system will remain challenged this summer and beyond.”

The memo highlights tension that has developed between airlines and regulators over who is most to blame for the disruptions. Domestic travel demand has barreled back following the pandemic, packing planes at the same time carriers have faced worker shortages and, in some cases, strong storms that have snarled flights. Fares and consumer complaints have climbed, along with flight cancellations and delays.

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Airlines have met with the FAA more than once on the issues, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged carriers going into the July 4 holiday weekend to adopt more reasonable summer schedules. Gridlock also has been particularly bad over Florida, where commercial carriers compete for air space with a growing number of private jets and space launches.

United temporarily cut 50 daily flights out of its hub at Newark, often one of the most delayed airports in the nation, starting July 1 in an effort to ease congestion this summer. American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue all have trimmed summer schedules to improve operations.

Washington, the FAA nominee, has a limited resume in aviation. He has been the top executive at the Denver airport only since last July. He has been closely tied to a plan to improve the airport for growth expected over the next 10 years and called for building two new runways in addition to one under construction.

Before that, he led the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 2015 to 2021 and ran Denver’s regional transportation agency between 2009 and 2015.

Washington spent 24 years in the US Army and holds a bachelor’s degree in business from Columbia College and a master’s degree in management from Webster University, according to the White House.

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The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since Dickson, in a surprise move, stepped down halfway through his five-year term.

The FAA approved the Boeing Max before Dickson took over in 2019. He oversaw the approval of Boeing-made changes to a key flight-control system that played a role in the crashes, and he won praise for resisting pressure from Boeing’s then-chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, to speed up the review of Boeing’s work.

Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report.