The Biden administration’s nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Wednesday the agency must address a persistent air traffic controller shortage that has caused flight delays.
Nominee Michael Whitaker, a former deputy FAA administrator, told the Senate Commerce Committee he would support opening a second air traffic controller academy to address staffing.
“We just simply need to solve this problem and figure out how to get it done,” Whitaker said at the committee confirmation hearing, describing the crunch as “years in the making.”
Whitaker also said the FAA must address a spate of near miss airplane incidents and “really drive the most serious ones down to a level of zero…that needs to be our target.”
The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator for 18 months after the prior nominee withdrew.
The FAA last month said it would again extend cuts to minimum flight requirements at congested New York City-area airports through October 2024. New York Terminal Radar Approach Control staffing is just at 54% of recommended levels.
In the summer of 2022, there were 41,498 flights from New York airports in which controller staffing was a contributing factor in delays, according to the FAA.
U.S. airlines have expressed growing frustration with air traffic staff shortages.
Whitaker told the confirmation hearing he was not involved in the certification of the Boeing (BA.N) 737 MAX when he was deputy FAA administrator. The plane was grounded worldwide in March 2019 after two fatal 737 MAX crashes killed 346 people. The grounding order was lifted by the FAA in November 2020.
Whitaker said he was committed to continuing reforms ordered by Congress after the crashes.
“It was a failure all around, it was a failure at Boeing, it was a failure of the system to catch information that was not disclosed by Boeing,” Whitaker said. “We need to make sure that never happens again.”
Boeing is awaiting FAA certification of the 737 MAX 7, a small version of the best-selling plane. In July, Boeing said the first MAX 7 delivery had been delayed to 2024.