- Jan 31, 2009
Wonder how much of an impact he will have on the whole ATC situation...maybe he'll want to hire everybody
Randy Babbitt, a prominent aviation consultant and former head of the largest U.S. commercial-pilot union, is expected to be nominated as the next head of the Federal Aviation Administration, according to industry officials and others familiar with the matter.
Mr. Babbitt served as president of the Air Line Pilots Association during much of the 1990s, set up his own advisory firm and then merged it with the larger consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Emerging as a compromise FAA administrator candidate acceptable to both labor leaders and airline officials, Mr. Babbitt's toughest challenges are likely to be negotiating a new pact with the nation's air-traffic controllers, and finding ways to finance a new satellite-based navigation system designed to increase capacity and safety for airliners and other aircraft.
Other difficult issues on his desk will be restoring congressional and public trust in a sprawling agency that was embroiled in controversy last year over maintenance lapses by a number of carriers and improperly close ties between some FAA inspectors and airline managers.
An announcement could come later Tuesday. The White House initially offered Mr. Babbitt the job weeks ago, according to people familiar with the details, pending background and financial checks. An announcement had been tentatively scheduled for next week, but the recent spate of high-profile aircraft accidents apparently prompted the Obama administration to speed up the timing.
The FAA has been run by an acting administrator since September 2007, when Senate Democrats blocked the nomination of then-President George W. Bush's choice for a permanent head.
The expected nomination comes amid increasing frustration by lawmakers, including some veteran House Democrats, over delays in picking the next FAA head. Persistent labor-management problems have sapped morale and, according to some FAA critics, reduced safety margins in the nation's air-traffic-control system. At the same time, pilot-union leaders continue to prod the FAA to issue updated rules to reduce cockpit fatigue, particularly on long international routes. But these and other issues have basically stalled as White House officials mulled whether to nominate Mr. Babbitt.
Mr. Babbitt is currently a partner in the aviation practice at Oliver Wyman Group, a management-consulting firm owned by New York-based Marsh & McLennan Cos. An Oliver Wyman spokesman declined to comment.
Given the FAA's continuing efforts to strike the right balance between cooperating with airlines and regulating them, Mr. Babbitt's list of former clients could prompt questions on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Mr. Babbitt was a registered lobbyist for Phoenix's aviation department, which runs Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, from 2003 to 2007. That may raise questions because the Obama administration has stated a preference for avoiding lobbyists in staffing key agencies. Mr. Babbitt, however, has emphasized that he never advocated for policy or legislative goals on behalf of industry clients.
"I was only registered as a lobbyist just 'to be on the safe side,' " Mr. Babbitt said in an email last month. "I have not lobbied nor did we ever have any clients that even suggested we lobby on their behalf."
Mr. Babbitt cancelled his lobbying registration in April 2007. In a letter attached to his final lobbying-disclosure form, an office manager in Mr. Babbitt's office said: "We have done no lobbying for this period, and have not done any lobbying for the several periods before it."
Mr. Babbitt also served on a blue-ribbon government commission last year that generally praised the FAA's oversight of airline maintenance but recommended some procedural changes to streamline the system and avoid confusion.
If confirmed, Mr. Babbitt's first priority is likely to be settling a long-running battle between the FAA and its air-traffic controllers that has poisoned the atmosphere in many towers. The two sides have been at odds over pay scales and work rules since 2006, when the FAA imposed pay cuts on new hires, dress codes and other workplace restrictions following a period of acrimonious negotiations. The friction also has complicated legislation that would boost funding for the FAA. Many Democrats want to force the two sides into arbitration if they can't settle their differences at the negotiating table.
The second priority will be to accelerate the transition to the next-generation traffic control system, touted as the best cure for the chronic delays plaguing air travel. The new system -- dubbed NextGen -- isn't currently scheduled to be fully operational before 2020. Such a long transition concerns lawmakers and industry. But airlines have balked at making expensive technology upgrades to cockpits, saying they need more proof of future benefits. The first major rulemaking effort in this area has faced difficulties amid uncertainty over who will run the agency.
In an interview earlier this month, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said his FAA chief should try to "resolve the dispute between the FAA and controllers, No. 1, and we want to get to next-generation?those are the two big things we want the FAA administrator to do."
A spokeswoman for the Transportation Department declined to comment.