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Op-Ed | The American Prospect | January 16, 2023

What Was Behind Last Week’s FAA Breakdown?

Department of TransportationExecutive Branch
What Was Behind Last Week’s FAA Breakdown?

This article first appeared in The American Prospect. Read the original here.

Following problems with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system last week, which led to flight delays all across the nation, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg finds himself embattled and under scrutiny for the breakdown. However, while many critics have been quick to lay blame at Pete’s feet, there is an important context that has been otherwise unreported.

Until last spring, the FAA was overseen by a Trump appointee named Steve Dickson. Dickson is a former Delta executive who, as FAA chief, was running the agency that regulated Delta and its competitors. Unfortunately, that sort of revolving-door arrangement is not at all uncommon for the FAA, which has a history of regulatory capture. The buddy-buddy relationship between the FAA and the industry it oversees was so extreme that the House of Representatives—not known for its heavy scrutiny of industry lobbying—voted unanimously to create a whistleblower office within the FAA insulated from the administrator.

That whistleblower protection was particularly important with Dickson at the helm, given his reported retaliation against a whistleblower who raised safety concerns at Delta while he was an executive at the airline. After a Delta pilot presented a report documenting safety concerns and what she considered possible FAA regulation violations, Dickson forced her to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. That diagnosis was rejected by a panel of doctors at the Mayo Clinic. Following the ordeal, the FAA substantiated one of the claims made by the pilot.

Buttigieg could have given Dickson the boot from the jump, but he didn’t. While the FAA administrator is appointed to a five-year term, the president is still able to fire them, just as the president is able to fire heads of other executive branch agencies. Presidents Clinton and Trump both fired Federal Bureau of Investigation directors. Biden did the same with the Republican Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s director, the National Labor Relations Board general counsel, and some (but sadly not all) of the holdover Trump appointees he inherited. But it seems unlikely that Biden would make that call at the FAA on his own, particularly on such a technical matter as air regulation. More likely, he deferred to Buttigieg’s judgment.

That was a mistake. For starters, as we’ve laid out repeatedly, there’s plenty of reason to replace every Trump appointee possible. They were handpicked by someone who conspired to overthrow the American government after years of wildly mismanaging it. As my colleague Toni Aguilar Rosenthal has written, that should automatically cast suspicion on them. Prior to the MAGA White House, it was also customary for most appointees to vacate their positions as a courtesy to allow the incoming president to select someone new. That was a custom that Trump’s appointees often ignored.

But even aside from a general and merited suspicion of Trump appointees, there was plenty of reason to want a hard reset at the Department of Transportation (DOT) in particular. As I’ve written, Elaine Chao, Buttigieg’s predecessor, was zealously anti-regulation and dedicated to allowing or abetting corporations as they exploited American consumers. Her driving philosophy seemed to be that her role as secretary was to serve the elite and transportation corporations (one of which, shipping company Foremost, is owned by her family). Chao spent her time at both the Transportation Department and, under George W. Bush, at the Department of Labor seeking to weaken workers while funneling more profits into the pockets of economic elites.

Dickson was appointed to head the FAA in the wake of the Boeing 737 MAX crashes to steady the ship and restore faith in the embattled agency. He did successfully resolve the Boeing issue and revamp safety inspections. He even insisted on not recertifying the 737 MAX until he had personally flown one and judged it from a pilot’s perspective. But this does not obviate Dickson’s countervailing tendency to undermine pilots’ safety concerns by sending them to a mental health screening for raising such issues.

It is difficult for the FAA to work for the public interest while it is continually run by people who have deep ties to airline executives. This is especially true when the FAA’s leadership has a track record of cracking down on employees when they raise safety concerns, rather than cracking down on the safety concerns themselves.

The easy solution for Buttigieg would have been to get rid of Dickson and appoint a Democrat (or a nonpartisan career staffer) committed to fighting for consumers and workers. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Instead, Buttigieg and Biden chose to let Dickson continue his term. However, early last year, Dickson resigned his post of his own volition, saying, as is the custom, that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Biden’s nominee to take up the post has languished in the Senate for months. Phil Washington, the nominee, has faced criticism for what some aviation experts believe is insufficient aviation-specific experience. For their part, Buttigieg and the White House have cited his extensive managerial experience in transportation and infrastructure.

In the meantime, the FAA has been left with a vacancy at the top for the better part of a year. By statute, the deputy administrator is supposed to carry out the duties of the administrator when the office is empty. That is not how DOT has handled the vacancy. The agency passed over Deputy Administrator Bradley Mims and instead appointed Billy Nolen, associate administrator for aviation safety, as the acting administrator. In announcing Nolen’s promotion, the same statement indicated that Mims would also take on additional responsibility.

There’s no real explanation for why Nolen was picked over Mims. Both have decades of experience. The most noticeable difference between them is that Nolen is a former airline executive who also worked at Airlines for America, a powerful trade group (which includes Southwest among its most prominent members). Mims, on the other hand, worked largely in transportation consulting as well as in a variety of public-sector advisory roles. Buttigieg went with someone who used to lobby for the airlines and then went on to help run an airline. Given the FAA’s troubled legacy of cozying up to airlines, that choice was not reassuring.

Matt Stoller of the American Economic Liberties Project has opined that the NOTAM malfunction was likely not Buttigieg’s fault, as airlines had been refusing to pay for upgrading the system. What is Buttigieg’s fault, however, is allowing the FAA and DOT to continue using kid gloves when acting as a regulator. He has let all but one domestic airline get away with a warning for illegally withholding customer refunds. And after this past summer’s months-long air travel debacle, rather than cracking down on the airlines, Buttigieg just sent a stern letter.

The NOTAM system is suffering from neglect, which resulted last week in the first mass grounding since 9/11. Buttigieg is not directly culpable for that specific failure, but he is responsible for the personnel decisions about who was overseeing the situation. He’s also responsible for setting the tone of the interactions between the DOT and an aviation industry that seemingly distributes dividends in a more timely manner than it transports Americans.

Image Credit: “Pete Buttigieg” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Department of TransportationExecutive Branch

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