Biden nominates DIA leader Phil Washington to head FAA, raising worries of vacuum at airport
Just a year after Phil Washington took over as Denver International Airport’s top leader, President Joe Biden has made it official: Washington is his pick to head the Federal Aviation Administration.
The White House announced Wednesday that Biden planned to nominate the airport’s CEO as the next FAA administrator, several weeks after news leaked that he was in contention for the job. Washington has spent much of his career at public transportation agencies after two decades in the Army — making the DIA job his first with direct involvement in aviation.
If Washington wins Senate confirmation, the potential loss at DIA has given heartburn to some Denver City Council members.
The vacancy would come during Mayor Michael Hancock’s final year in office, likely making it more difficult to find a new CEO for such a short period before a new mayor takes office in July 2023. The position pays $346,975 a year, tops among mayoral appointees.
“I never thought I’d be in a position of asking someone to turn down a White House appointment, but I believe this puts our airport status into such uncertainty” at a time when strong leadership is needed, Councilman Kevin Flynn told The Denver Post last month, following early reports about Washington’s potential nomination.
At-large Councilwoman Debbie Ortega also recently expressed concern, requesting that the mayor’s office brief council members on plans to keep DIA’s momentum going.
Industry observers have said Washington’s outsider status, along with deep experience in public administration, could be an asset as the FAA recovers from high-profile oversight failures in recent years, including two crashes of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.
More recently, the FAA and the airlines have attempted to work together to reduce wide-ranging disruptions and flight cancellations due in part to staffing shortages among flight and ground crews. The airlines have pointed to shortages of air traffic controllers in some places as causing or compounding delays, too.
“His independence and lack of industry ties may make him a good person for the present moment at the FAA,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has followed the agency’s struggles. “One major issue will be whether there is time before the midterms for the Senate to confirm him, and that seems unclear.”
Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper serves on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has FAA oversight.
“Phil Washington will bring an organizational discipline to the FAA during this time of stress and challenge,” the Democrat said in a news release issued jointly with Sen. Michael Bennet. “He has translated his successful military career into a level of operational competence rare in any industry sector. He will do great things in his new role.”
Last week, Hancock said during an interview that he wasn’t surprised Washington had drawn the White House’s interest. If the nomination came through, he suggested he would be able to fill the airport CEO position — though he noted that “everybody’s interim at this point.” That may make an internal pick the best bet.
The city charter requires the mayor to make nominations for key positions, including the airport CEO, “in a reasonable and timely manner.” The council then would consider consenting to the appointment. But that process begins only if Washington’s nomination is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“You know, we’re not panicked,” Hancock said. “We’ve got good leadership at the airport. … We have a plan. We have a good team in place. As you know, the CEO is one person, and the vision has been laid out. I think Phil’s done tremendous work in 12 months.”
Washington took over during a pivotal year at DIA.
He led a push late last year to revive components of DIA’s long-troubled Great Hall terminal renovation project as part of a big expansion that increased the budget from $770 million to nearly $2.1 billion, extending construction through 2027 or 2028. He argued the extra capacity would be needed sooner rather than later to accommodate rapid growth in passenger traffic. The City Council ultimately agreed.
The airport has other large expansion projects underway, and it faces questions about whether its plans will keep up with all the growth.
Tuesday’s brief outage of the concourse train system was the latest to highlight the lack of a full backup option to reach DIA’s gates — a problem for which Washington has solicited potential solutions, however costly, from the private sector. Those initial proposals are still under review.
On Wednesday, DIA referred The Post’s request for an interview with Washington to the White House, which declined, pending his confirmation vote.
He attracted the Biden team’s attention during the 2020 election and was tabbed to lead the transportation team during the presidential transition.
“I interacted with the FAA and airports around the country in evaluating the state of the U.S. Department of Transportation,” Washington told The Post after he was nominated for DIA job in June 2021.
He previously held the top job at L.A. Metro, the largest transit agency in Southern California, and earlier led the Regional Transportation District in metro Denver when it was launching and building several FasTracks rail line projects. During his Army career, Washington rose to the top enlisted rank, command sergeant major, occupying several roles heavy in administration and coordination.
Update (3:15 p.m. July 6): This story was updated to reflect that the Denver city charter doesn’t allow lengthy interim appointments for major positions. The Denver mayor is charged with nominating a new CEO at DIA if the position becomes vacant.