The White House is set within days to announce Phil Washington, CEO of Denver International Airport, as its nominee to be the next FAA administrator, according to two people familiar with the deliberations.
Because the nominee will face U.S. Senate confirmation hearings, the nomination is politically sensitive and closely held. It will not be final until the Biden administration makes a formal announcement, expected this week or early next week.
Washington’s aviation experience is relatively light. He has headed operations at the Denver airport for less than a year and has a strong track record of leadership in ground transportation at big city transit organizations.
However, his lack of deep roots in the aviation industry may be part of his appeal to the White House. The Federal Aviation Administration is still struggling to throw off criticism that it had become a captive agency of major aerospace industry players such as Boeing.
Washington would lead an agency with a budget of $24 billion and about 45,000 employees tasked with ensuring the smooth and safe operation of the nation’s airline system — a vital part of the country’s infrastructure that is currently under enormous strain.
Domestic air travel this summer is expected to be exceptionally challenging, with many planes fully booked while airline and air traffic control labor shortages threaten to cancel more flights than normal.
Washington is well-regarded in Democratic political circles.
In the fall of 2020, he led the transportation team for the Biden/Harris transition to advise on the direction of federal transportation policy and agencies, and co-chaired the Biden/Harris Infrastructure Policy Committee.
His credentials for that role came from the job before his current one: For six years he was CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the rail and bus network that carries 1.2 million passengers daily.
In L.A., he led 11,000 employees, managed a budget of more than $8 billion, and oversaw between $18 billion and $20 billion in capital projects.
Before that, between 2009 and 2015, he was CEO of the Denver Regional Transportation District, where he led one of the largest voter-approved transportation expansion programs in the country.
Ed Wytkind, former head of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, a national coalition of labor unions, said Washington is a “high-caliber guy” who worked well with unions while leading the transit authorities.
In a statement Thursday, the office of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who appointed Washington to his position at DEN airport, said: “We are lucky to have Phil Washington as our CEO at DEN and not at all surprised his name would come up in consideration for this position.”
Through spokesperson Stacey Stegman, Washington declined an interview request.
“He would prefer you discuss with the administration at this time,” Stegman said via email.
Washington holds a bachelor’s degree in business from Columbia College Chicago, as well as a master’s in management from Webster University. He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School program for senior executives in state and local government.
Originally from the South Side of Chicago — the housing projects of Altgeld Gardens — Washington is a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Army, where he achieved the rank of command sergeant major.
FAA reputation damaged
The FAA, historically, is the world’s leading aviation safety regulator.
It is responsible for the U.S. air traffic control and navigation systems for civil and military aircraft.
And it oversees the certification of all new commercial airplanes as safe to fly passengers, ranging from Boeing airliners to corporate business jets and small private planes.
The agency also develops programs to control aircraft noise and other environmental effects of civil aviation near airports.
And as aviation technology innovation develops, the FAA must keep up. It is researching and developing new regulatory controls for unmanned drones, urban air taxis, sustainable fuel projects and commercial space operations.
The FAA’s gold-standard reputation was badly damaged after the Boeing 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019.
The FAA process of certifying the MAX left much of the oversight work to Boeing and missed what were in hindsight seen as glaring design flaws.
Before that, aviation regulators around the world, including those in Europe and Canada, had typically deferred to the FAA and automatically gone along with its decisions.
After the crashes, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and Transport Canada in particular insisted on imposing their own tighter restrictions on Boeing before allowing the 737 MAX to return to service.
Steve Dickson, a former Air Force pilot and Delta Air Lines captain, was appointed FAA administrator in August 2019 to get the agency back on track and begin to restore its reputation.
Dickson oversaw the protracted scrutiny of Boeing’s fix for the MAX, which saw the plane grounded for close to two years. His public pushback against pressure from Boeing’s then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg resulted in Muilenburg’s firing.
Since then, the FAA’s local office in the Seattle area that oversees certification of new Boeing planes has provided intense scrutiny of the pending MAX 10 and 777X models, both of which are now well behind schedule.
Dickson resigned in February, citing family reasons.
In his place, Washington would need to push ahead with the oversight reforms demanded by Congress in the 2020 Aircraft Certification Safety and Accountability Act, maintaining independence from the industry the FAA regulates and ensuring safety remains the priority.
Multiple sources said that the White House nomination selection had narrowed recently to a choice between Washington and Airbus Americas executive Amanda Simpson, a former pilot with long experience in the U.S. aerospace industry and government under former President Barack Obama.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the college Phil Washington attended for his B.A. degree in Business. It was Columbia College Chicago.