There’s a lot of virtual ink being spilled in the blogosphere about Obama’s shortlist for FAA administrator. Some of those rumored to be under consideration include Representative Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee; Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.); Clinton-era FAA chief Jane Garvey; Robert Herbert, an aide to Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Boeing executive Neil Planzer, and former Air Line Pilots Association president Duane Woerth. Regarding the latter, the Wall Street Journal‘s Middle Seat Terminal blog has this to say:
Woerth . . . has met with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar and has his tentative support, according to people familiar with their discussions. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who heads an aviation subcommittee, is slated to meet with Woerth in the next few days. . . .
Still, the Journal reports that Woerth has the strong backing of various unions seeking to cash in political capital for their aggressive support of Obama’s candidacy. But Woerth, who frequently prodded the agency to step up air-safety efforts, also has garnered bipartisan endorsements on Capitol Hill and enjoys the backing of some aircraft makers and airline-industry officials.
I called a airline pilot friend and ALPA member at one of the nation’s largest airlines to get his impressions. This pilot thought Woerth did an “OK” job as head of ALPA. My source especially praised Woerth’s handling of the critical time surrounding the September 11 attacks: “He was head of ALPA during 9/11. He had a huge amount dumped on his plate with the tremendous challenges to the industry” — including persuading pilot groups to make wage and benefit concessions in attempts to save their airlines.
How do you think he would do as head of the FAA? I asked. “It would be good to have Duane Woerth as head of the FAA. . . . From the operational side, having a pilot as head of the FAA is a great idea,” he replied. “Would you ever think of having the surgeon general be a non-doctor?” He thought it would be a welcome change from the last two FAA administrators — Jane Garvey and Marion Blakey, neither of whom were pilots — and from previous administrators with solely military backgrounds who were less than familiar with the commercial side.
Woerth’s experience as the head of a union would give him a useful perspective when dealing with the FAA’s unions. As a “staunch supporter” of labor, however, being thrust into management could be a challenge, especially if FAA unions set their expectations too high.
Given the history of tension between commercial airlines and general aviation, my source said, “I’m not sure it would be good for the GA guys.” It almost certainly wouldn’t. Former airline pilot and Jetwhine blogger Rob Mark criticized Woerth for blaming business aviation for chronic delays. Mark writes:
[W]hat I do find difficult to swallow is how a bunch of union rowdies that many airline pilots are – and I actually mean that in a nice way – can sleep at night knowing that the people who run their airlines and their own union are shooting themselves and the future of this profession in the foot.
If it were not for general aviation airplanes, those airline pilot ladies and gents would never have learned to fly. And where are the people supposed to come from to replace the thousands of pilots who are retiring each year?
In another post, Mark adds: “Union folks have no business pitting one side of an industry against another. That hurts everyone. I know it happens, but it’s still wrong.”
Although Woerth’s union past and industry ties may help him win confirmation, and while many pilots will be pleased if he’s nominated, it seems that bitter battles will continue to loom ahead for the FAA.
The Middle Seat Terminal blog post ends with an odd comment: “The FAA job traditionally goes to an industry executive, high-ranking military officer or government official. It would seem that a former commercial pilot would have plenty of attributes that could recommend him for heading up a government agency. Ability to multi-task? Check. Command personality traits? Check. Experience managing public expectations? Captains have to keep passengers abreast of reasons for delays and other flight issues. Many of our readers are pilots, and we’d like to hear from you: What do you think of the possibility that one of your own may head the FAA?” Hmm. . . . perhaps we can ask a former commercial pilot who is currently serving as FAA administrator?