A Diversity Ethics Conundrum: Is It Plausible That Phil Washington Is Qualified To Head The FAA?

Phil Washington, President Biden’s nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration, apparently knows absolutely nothing about aviation. He is black, however, and the Biden Administration has made it quite clear that that feature, virtually all by itself, can make an individual fully qualified for difficult and important government positions without any other indicia of special competence. [See: Karine Jean-Pierre, Kamala Harris et al.] In his testimony before Congress last week, Washington did not exactly dazzle with his answers to questions related to America’s civil aviation system. Senator Ted Budd (R-NC) received these responses to seven questions about basic aviation (in baseball terms, Washington was 0 for 7):

Budd: “What airspace requires an ADS-B transponder?”

Washington: “Not sure I can answer that question right now.”

Budd: “What are the six types of special use airspace that…appear on FAA charts?”

Washington: “Sorry, senator, I cannot answer that question.”

Budd: “What are the operational limitations of a pilot flying under BasicMed?”

Washington: “Senator, I’m…not a pilot.”

Budd: “But, obviously you’d oversee the Federal Aviation Administration, so any idea what those restrictions are under BasicMed?”

Washington: “Well, some of the restrictions I think would be high blood pressure some of them would be…”

Budd: “It’s more like how many passengers per airplane, how many pounds, and different categories, and what altitude you can fly under, and amount of knots — it’s under 250 knots — so, it’s not having anything to do with blood pressure.”

Budd: “Can you tell me what causes an aircraft to spin or to stall?”

Washington: “Again, senator, I’m not a pilot.”

Budd: “What are the three aircraft certifications the FAA requires as part of the manufacturing process?”

Washington: “Again, what I would say to that is that one of my first priorities would be to fully implement that Certification Act and report…”

Budd: “You know the three types?”

Washington: “No.”

Budd: “That’s type certificate, production certificate, and airworthiness certificate. Let’s just keep going and see if we can get lucky here. Can you tell me what the minimum separation distance is for landing and departing airliners during the daytime?”

Washington: “I don’t want to guess on that, senator.”

Budd: “Are you familiar with the difference between Part 107 and Part 44809 when it comes to unmanned aerial standards?”

Washington: “No, I cannot, uh, spell that out…”

It is important be fair here. After all, I was once hired to run a health care promotion non-profit in serious financial and organizational chaos, though I knew very little about the main activity of the organization, which was holding local health fairs nationwide. I did have experience running non-profit organizations and in fund-raising, but if I had been grilled on the details of the tests and services the organization offered in its main product, the fairs, I would have done about as well as Washington. An effective leader and manager can lead and manage operations outside of his or her experience, if he or she can gain the trust and confidence of those he supervises.

In Washington’s case, there isn’t a lot of evidence that he is a whiz-bang manager. After 24 years in the Army and acquiring a degree in Business Administration and a Masters in Management from two schools I’ve never heard of, he became assistant general manager of administration at the regional agency that operates public transit services in the Denver-Aurora-Boulder area in Colorado. After 9 years in that job, Washington was named interim head of the agency when there was a vacancy, and his position was eventually made permanent. Six years later Washington moved to LA to head the the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In November of 2020, Washington was named Team Lead for the Joe Biden presidential transition Agency Review Team for the United States Department of Transportation.
Seven months later, Denver mayor Michael Hancock selected Washington to become the CEO of Denver International Airport shortly before the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department opened a criminal investigation into Washington’s tenure with the mass transit agancy. A Metro whistleblower had leveled accusations of corruption. Washington maintained that he was innocent and that the whistleblower was a proverbial “disgruntled employee.” Despite the allegations and the investigation, the Denver City Council unanimously voted to approve Washington as the new CEO of the airport, a position he has served in for a little less than two years, apparently without learning much about aviation.

Is it possible or even plausible that Washington is the best available manager to run the FAA? Let’s forget about best: what are the chances that he is even a minimally adequate selection for that job? To me, he appears to be one more lifetime government bureaucrat whose talents lie more in partisan loyalty and and reliable mutual back-scratching than in productive organizational leadership, but that’s an impression only: I don’t have the data on his job performance. Maybe he is quietly brilliant

Sen. Budd reacted to Washington’s performance in the hearing by saying that we “can’t have an FAA administrator who needs on-the-job training.” That’s unfair: most complex and challenging jobs require on-the-job training. What is ominous about Washington’s hearing responses is that he apparently didn’t feel it necessary to educate himself regarding the subject matter of his appointment at all.

13 thoughts on “A Diversity Ethics Conundrum: Is It Plausible That Phil Washington Is Qualified To Head The FAA?

  1. People should watch a few episodes of “Air Disasters” (23 seasons) before they decide if they want to allow anyone chosen for “diversity” rather than competency
    anywhere near an aircraft or aircraft-related supervision or management. (Talking to you, too, United)

    • Well, it may be that Washington wasn’t chosen just for his race, but if that’s true, his lack of any apparent expertise in the field he was appointed to oversee undermines arguments in his favor, as do the demonstrated priorities of the Biden administration.

    • If you’re an Amazon Prime member, the first nine seasons of Air Disasters in available for free. Season 23 is a collection of episodes from prior seasons. I purchased Season 23 and feel like a chump as these episodes are culled from the first nine seasons (which are free).

  2. Fair or not, whenever I meet or hear about someone who got a job presumably based on affirmative actions and/or intersectional checkboxes, I assume they are not competent and/or that got that job ahead of more qualified person. It may be unfair to the few who are truly qualified and competent, but until we move past such evil practices I think it is fair me to feel and think this way.

  3. If only there were an opening for the Secretary of Transportation; he might fit in well there.

    I agree that fairness is important. However, while some of the questions may be “pilot questions” (like landing distances*), there were certain ones that are more regulatory that you would expect someone heading the agency to know (like the certificates or special aircraft types).

    *Yes, I am sure landing distances are governed by an FAA regulation. However, I am a lawyer and I don’t know what the regulation says. But, it is easy enough to look up, I bet. I often tell clients that there are certain topics where I always have to go back to the statutes because I am not a specialist and certain details can be very technical. But, I know where to find the details I need.


  4. I think many of these “department head” positions are just patronage positions. The various levels of bureaucrats actually run these departments. The “heads” are just figureheads. Tom Vilsack is a good example. Secretary of Agriculture. Why? Former governor of a state where they grow a lot of corn. Did he know a disc from a plow? Probably not.

    • OB…please pick another example rather than Tom Vilsack. I know the guy. He is a very likable, established career politician and quite harmless in his position. He did alright governing Iowa, and I can guarantee that he knows a disc from a plow. His wife Christy presents herself well and would make a great first lady if she got the chance. Mr. Vilsack has more ability and experience than the peanut farmer did, bless his heart. I wish all democrats aspiring to hold public office compared as well to Tom Vilsack. He won’t make it to any nomination though, because he is, unfortunately, a go along/get along Democrat, and not conniving or viscious enough for the ring.
      Mr. Washington’s interview was a joke.

      • As a life-long Iowan and conservative, I can heartily agree with this assessment. I didn’t vote for Tom, but he was not dislikeable and he was certainly capable of governing the state (even if I didn’t always agree with him).

  5. As a resident of Denver I can tell you that his management of the airport here has been nothing short of incompetent and disastrous. He is a purely reactive type of manager with very little foresight and no concept of planning- he simply responds to situations as they develop. And his responses have been uniformly lacking. See, for example, the incompetent renovation of DIA’s main terminal, the terrible response to the SWA meltdown and associated baggage debacle, and lousy mass transit management at the terminal. He is not qualified for this position and while I feel that some of those questions were unfair, I would expect anyone who is involved in aviation management to have a knowledge of at least some of those areas.

    • That renovation of DIA sucks. It also exposed A gate security to many more people, so now everyone knows about it and it is no longer the short way through security. DIA security is awful already and I swear, this made it so much worse. Parking prices and hotel prices have gotten so high that it is now cheaper for many in Wyoming to get a local puddle jumper than to drive down there, pay for a hotel and parking, and fly out of DIA.

      Everyone I know is unimpressed with the way DIA has been going.

  6. To find out competency in management you have to pose hypotheticals. Questions regarding landings could be couched as “in your opinion can landing frequencies be increased by a factor of 25% without a significant level of increased risk. What considerations would you use to develop that opinion.

    Management requires the ability to take disparate facts and circumstances and decide what is the best course of action. Most leaders rely on subject matter experts to provide the facts and the manager / leader evaluates them given a set of parameters and then decides what to do. The best managers anticipate issues and develop solutions ahead of time.
    There is no evidence the nominee has such skills.

  7. Something is definitely wrong with the FAA. In the last month, at least three near misses happened despite instructions from Air Traffic Control in which a plane was cleared to land on a runway that already had an aircraft on a take-off roll. At least twice, Air Traffic Control cleared two different aircraft to take off or land on an intersecting runway.
    The only thing that prevented disaster were alert pilots and electronic collision avoidance alarms (TCAS).
    The NOTAM failure that called for a full “ground stop” is another high-profile failure under the FAA’s remit.
    Whatever the cure is for the FAA’s ills, it ain’t Mr Washington. He seemed very comfortable with his lack of knowledge; in aviation, that complacency invariably gets people killed.

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