After what turned into a bruising confirmation battle for President Joe Biden's pick to head the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced on Saturday that Denver International Airport CEO Phillip Washington had withdrawn his nomination, as NPR reports.
Buttigieg acknowledged the nominee's decision in a tweet that began, “The FAA needs a confirmed Administrator, and Phil Washington's transportation & military experience made him an excellent nominee.”
“The partisan attacks and procedural obstruction he has faced are undeserved, but I respect his decision to withdraw and am grateful for his service,” Buttigieg added.
Nominated to the post last July, it took eight months for Washington to receive a hearing amid significant Republican pushback on what they deemed his lack of relevant qualifications and other issues in the candidate's background.
As the Washington Times reported earlier this month, a number of Republican lawmakers demanded that Biden pull Washington from further consideration due to the absence of “aviation experience” in his personal history.
The 14 GOP legislators who signed the letter all possess pilot's licenses, and they cited federal law mandating that the person leading the FAA has some “experience in a field directly related to aviation,” something they argue Washington simply cannot claim.
Washington did not dispute his status as a non-pilot, and his tenure as CEO of the Denver International Airport – which dates back to 2021 – was deemed by the lawmakers to be insufficiently material to the job for which he was nominated.
“His aviation experience is limited to working at the Denver airport for less than two years. In that role, Mr. Washington is primarily responsible for non-aviation matters, such as the airport's shops, restaurants, parking, and, buildings,” they wrote.
Noting recent difficulties that have plagued the commercial aviation landscape, the legislators asserted, “The FAA cannot afford to be led by someone who needs on-the-job training, especially at a time when our aviation system is facing tremendous safety challenges such as multiple near-misses by airlines and the first nationwide grounds stop of aircraft since 9/11.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was among those especially skeptical of the nominee's suitability for the role, saying during a Senate Commerce committee confirmation hearing that the FAA administrator needed “decades of experience in aviation” and that “[t]he nominee before us, Phil Washington, had a long and honorable career in the military. But he does not have any experience in aviation safety. This, quite simply, is a position he is not qualified for.”
In addition to the aforementioned objections based on Washington's dearth of aviation experience, other concerns about his professional history also came to the forefront, including the fact that he was named in two discrimination and whistleblower retaliation lawsuits related to his tenure as CEO of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as the Times noted.
Washington was also mentioned in a September 2022 criminal search warrant in connection to an investigation of favoritism charges at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and a recent federal complaint filed by a worker at the Denver airport claims that “threats” and “intolerable” employment conditions persisted while Washington was at the helm of the facility.
Because of all of those concerns, as PBS NewsHour noted, Washington's prospects for confirmation appeared all but finished after Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) cancelled a scheduled vote on the matter last week, noting that some of her colleagues sought additional information on the nominee.
Reacting to Washington's decision, Cruz opined, “Given the significant challenges facing the FAA, this wasn't the time for an administration who needed on-the-job training. The Biden administration must now quickly name someone to head the FAA who has an extensive aviation background, can earn widespread bipartisan support in the Senate, and will keep the flying public safe,” sentiments with which everyone should be able to agree.