President Joe Biden on Thursday nominated a former Obama administration official to lead the Federal Aviation Administration after his first choice withdrew in March after running into opposition from Republican senators.
The White House said Biden nominated Michael G. Whitaker, a former deputy administrator at the FAA. He is currently the chief operating officer of a Hyundai affiliate working to develop an air taxi aircraft.
Whitaker's nomination had been expected for months, and Biden's announcement was praised by several industry and labor groups.
The FAA, which regulates airline safety and manages the nation's airspace, has been run by back-to-back acting administrators since March 2022.
The agency faces a number of challenges including a shortage of air traffic controllers, aging technology, and alarm over close calls between planes at major airports. In addition, Congress is deliberating over legislation that will direct the agency's operations for the next five years.
Whitaker worked as a lawyer for TWA, which was absorbed by American Airlines, spent 15 years at United Airlines, where he became a senior vice president and oversaw international and regulatory affairs, then moved to InterGlobe, a travel company in India.
He was deputy FAA administrator — a job that does not require Senate approval — from 2013 to 2016. He is currently the chief commercial officer for Supernal, a Hyundai subsidiary that is working on an electric-powered air taxi — which would need FAA certification to fly in the United States.
The White House said Whitaker holds a private-pilot license.
Last year, Biden nominated Denver International Airport CEO Phillip Washington, but he withdrew in March after his nomination stalled in the Senate Commerce Committee. Republicans and independent Kyrsten Sinema argued that Washington lacked adequate aviation experience — his background is mostly in city transit systems, having held the Denver airport job only since mid-2021.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who led the GOP opposition to Biden's first pick, gave a noncommittal statement about the second choice.
“We must carefully evaluate Mike Whitaker’s qualifications, experience, and temperament to determine whether he is the right person to lead the agency at this critical juncture,” Cruz said.
The FAA has lacked a Senate-confirmed leader since early last year, when Stephen Dickson, who was chosen by President Donald Trump, quit midway through his five-year term.
Since then, the agency has been run by two successive acting administrators. The first, Billy Nolen, who left FAA in June to join another air taxi company, Archer Aviation, praised Whitaker's nomination in a recent interview. “I can’t think of a better choice,” he said. “He will do an amazing job.”
Earl Lawrence, a former senior official at the FAA who now works for Xwing, which is developing pilotless planes to carry cargo, said Whitaker's appointment would be a win for companies making drones and autonomous aircraft — in part because of Whitaker's time at Supernal.
“He knows how to support the airlines because he worked at the airlines, and he has worked with the drone folks,” Lawrence said. He will “create the environment that it's OK to move forward” with new technologies.
A range of industry groups praised Whitaker as somebody they can work with — which could raise questions about FAA independence from the companies it regulates.
Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, said Whitaker has extensive experience including on modernizing the air traffic system. He said Whitaker appreciates “the collaborative partnership between industry and government” to keep air travel safe.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, urged the Senate to confirm Biden’s pick quickly. “Whitaker has the experience to step into the role and immediately lead us forward,” she said.
This story has been corrected to note that FAA has been run by two successive acting administrators, not three.
David Koenig, The Associated Press