FAA nominee Michael Whittaker told senators Wednesday that hiring more air traffic controllers would be a “top priority” if he is confirmed as administrator.

FAA nominee Michael Whittaker told senators Wednesday that hiring more air traffic controllers would be a “top priority” if he is confirmed as administrator. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Biden’s FAA nominee promises renewed focus on reversing air traffic controller understaffing

There is bipartisan support to quickly address the shortfalls.

President Biden’s nominee to run the Federal Aviation Administration vowed to work quickly to address longstanding staffing shortfalls at the agency, meeting bipartisan demands to particularly focus on growing the cadre of air traffic controllers. 

FAA has not had a confirmed administrator in 18 months and Michael Whittaker, the current nominee who faced a confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday, is Biden’s second attempt to fill the vacancy. Whitaker, a former deputy administrator at FAA, appeared to win bipartisan support from lawmakers on the panel. 

The nominee said none of his goals for the agency, which include shoring up its safety measures and modernizing the national aviation system to adapt to new technologies, are achievable without “making the FAA a place of choice where aviators want to build their careers.” 

“We must have a pipeline of dedicated public servants to achieve our mission,” Whitaker said. “Nowhere is this clearer than the ongoing work to catch up on air traffic controller training. The shortage has been years in the making, but you have my commitment to reduce this backlog.”

Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., said the shortfalls within the air traffic controller ranks require “immediate attention.”

“Right now there are shortages and staffing across the country, forcing our controllers to work intense schedules with long and longer hours,” Lujan said. “When we do not take good care of our air traffic controllers, it puts the efficiency and safety of our aviation system at risk.” 

Whitaker said it would be a “top priority” to ensure FAA is hiring as many controllers as is necessary and added he would look into counting separately those who are still in training. He added he would support opening a second training academy for controllers, noting the cap of 1,800 trainees per year at the existing facility creates a “choke point” for the agency. 

“I think the most important thing is to focus on expanding that pipeline and getting as many potential controllers into the system and training them as we can,” Whitaker said. 

There is bipartisan, bicameral agreement that FAA is in desperate need of more air traffic controllers and support personnel, which lawmakers and the White House are looking to address before the agency’s current authorization expires this year. FAA warned earlier this year that staffing shortages would cause a spike in flight delays and force the agency to ask airlines in certain locations to operate fewer flights.

The agency’s authorization was extended through Nov. 17 as part of the stopgap funding bill that Congress approved at the end of September. The House overwhelmingly passed its FAA reauthorization bill earlier this year, but the Senate has yet to approve its version. 

A Transportation Department inspector general report earlier this year found a lack of certified controllers created a risk to air traffic operations. The auditors criticized FAA for lacking a staffing plan and noted—as the agency did in testimony to Congress earlier this year—that many facilities were below the 85% staffing threshold that forces prioritized placement. A recent working group found FAA must maintain more than 14,000 controllers to meet demand, compared to the 12,000 the agency is targeting under its current model and the 10,600 it had on staff.

The push for rapid hiring at FAA again received bipartisan support on Wednesday. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the top Republican on the panel that held the hearing, said it was “certainly a pressing need” to improve recruiting efforts at the agency. He pushed for a second training academy and called for Whitaker to start addressing the staffing issue before the end of the year. 

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced Whitaker ahead of the hearing and offered his support. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has also endorsed Whitaker’s nomination. 

“The bottom line is that having Mr. Whitaker confirmed as FAA Administrator will help provide much-needed certainty for the FAA and aviation industry at this pivotal moment in history,” Graves said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the committee, pressed the urgency of the situation, saying, “We need the right people and we need them now.” 

“I think assessing the workforce will be one of the first goals that I have within the agency and I would look forward to finding ways that we can increase ways to bring people into the agency,” Whittaker said. "I think it's a tight workforce right now in aerospace, and we recruit in the same places that private industry does, and we've got to figure out a way to be competitive to bring the right talent into the agency.”