Politics put FAA’s top spot in limbo

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nowhere is it more evident that politics rules government than what is going on with the inaction on presidential nominees.

Robert Sturgell was nominated last October to be FAA administrator, but the Senate hasn’t held even one confirmation hearing. His is one of at least 75 nominations held up in the Senate.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) recently waded into the fray trying to get the Democratic leadership off the dime to move the nomination ahead. Peters spoke at a recent luncheon of the Washington Aero Club, stating that time is of the essence and urging Congress to move forward on the FAA nomination. (She also sang the same old song about the need for user fees.)

The following day, Mica followed up by publicly stating, “”we are courting disaster and a further national aviation meltdown without a confirmed FAA administrator.”” Mica, ranking Republican on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, added that delaying the confirmation not only sets back safety and air traffic control modernization, but also is delaying other critical aviation programs.

“”Without an administrator in place,”” he said, “”nothing will happen at the agency, as we frequently saw before Congress established a five-year term for the position.””

Prior to establishing the term period, there were five administrators in 10 years. “”This turnover at the nation’s most critical aviation post resulted in safety, operations and modernization programs being delayed, left in limbo, or sidelined,”” Mica said. “”It is shameful that the Senate would put politics over safety by blocking even recess appointments.””

Sturgell has a strong aviation background. Not since David Hinson was appointed to the post in 1993 has there been a pilot in the position. Sturgell was a Naval Aviator flying fighter aircraft and later was an instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School. Before going to the FAA to be a senior advisor and later assistant administrator to past FAA Chief Marion Blakey, Sturgell was a senior advisor at the National Transportation Safety Board. Before that government post he was a flight operations supervisor and line pilot for United Airlines.

One of the issues that needs to be resolved soon is the bitter dispute between the FAA and air traffic controllers. Since the stalemate on a contract, controllers have been resigning and retiring at a fast rate. About 10% of the workforce left in 2007 and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) says controllers are leaving at a faster rate this year, noting that departures are at a rate of about six per day.

This has led NATCA to claim a shortage of qualified controllers, which the FAA denies. NATCA has declared that the Northern California TRACON and Oakland Center are having staffing emergencies. This marks the sixth major area in the United States where NATCA has declared staffing emergencies.

Since last October there have been eight operational errors — instances when two aircraft got closer than FAA rules allow. NATCA blames a shortage of qualified controllers and heavy overtime for the operational errors.

The confirmation delay could go on beyond November. Republicans want to get one of their own in the five-year post, while Democrats want to delay the confirmation in hopes that the election will give them a shot at confirming someone from their party to serve the president during the next term.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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