The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Wednesday held its first confirmation hearing for Phil Washington, President Joe Biden’s pick to head the Federal Aviation Authority, with the long-time issuer coming under criticism from Republicans for a lack of aviation experience.
Biden tapped Washington as his FAA pick nearly eight months ago. The hearing comes as Congress will take up the FAA reauthorization bill this year. The position carries a five-year term.
A Chicago native who spent 24 years in the U.S. Army, Washington has been CEO of the Denver International Airport since 2021. Before that he was CEO at Denver’s Regional Transportation District, where, among other things, he implemented the nation’s first transit public-private partnership called the Eagle P3 Project. Washington led the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 2015 to 2021, where he oversaw an expansion of the system, including new rail connections to Los Angeles International Airport.
Washington last year founded the Equity in Infrastructure Project, which asks public agencies to sign a pledge to significantly increase the number of prominent contracts given to historically underserved businesses.
“He takes on the big complex problems and gets results,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo. “He is the kind of person we want in our federal management system.”
In his prepared statements, Washington touted his experience overseeing large infrastructure projects at public transportation agencies.
“Overseeing these massive projects provided me with a great deal of experience managing large, complex, and challenging projects and organizations,” he said.
Republicans criticized Washington for his lack of aviation experience — past FAA chiefs have been pilots — with ranking Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas accusing Biden of treating the position as a “patronage job,” and peppering him with technical questions about airplanes.
“This, quite simply, is a position he is not qualified for,” Cruz said. “The Democrat city transit agencies he’s run have been beset by mismanagement and wasteful spending,” he added.
Republicans also singled out Washington’s emphasis on diversity and equity.
“At the Denver airport,” Cruz said, “he’s spending millions of dollars to build a special, quote, hall of equity, and change the contract bidding process to place a heavier emphasis on so-called equity and so-called social cultural merits. Safety, not political posturing, needs to be paramount at the FAA.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., asked Washington if he would pursue diversity and equity procurement processes at the FAA.
“Not my plan right now. I want to take a look,” Washington responded.
“See, people are concerned about safety,” Blackburn said.
Washington told senators that safety would be his top priority if confirmed, and that safety “has been my number one priority in the United States Army and every transportation organization I’ve been in.”
Committee chair Maria Cantwell did not say when the committee would vote on Washington’s confirmation but indicated it would be soon.