Administrators’ Chair should not be empty; is Captain Dunkin a good candidate?

Administrator's Chair
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Minister has not approved IAA appointment, months after deputy CEO offered the job

Trump’s personal pilot ‘in the mix’ to lead the Federal Aviation Administration

The Irish Aviation Authority’s Top Job has been empty

The FAA Administrator Chair unoccupied for months, but the need known for a year

John  Dunkin is a Candidate, but is he qualified?

A national government requires a talented cadre of leaders to function well. Within that category, some absences have greater impacts than others. A characteristic which distinguishes between “good to have” and “must have” is that the organization to be led has substantial day-to-day operations. An empty seat at the top of the FAA creates cascading problems. Critical decisions as to priorities, selections/promotions, acquisitions and other high order issues tend to be deferred without the Administrator around.


[NOTE: this is not to say that the current Acting Administrator is not competent to exercise these judgments; in fact, one can easily make the case that the “Acting” should be deleted from his title based on his knowledge, experience and leadership. Dan, in deference to the long awaited Nominee, has not filled (allowed by DoT?) any of the vacancies that are listed in the FAA organization chart.]


Shane Ross Minister for Transport The first article points out that the Irish Minister for Transport Shane Ross has yet to approve the appointment of Peter Kearney as chief executive of air travel safety regulator, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA). That body is responsible for regulating Aer Lingus, Ryan Air, Norwegian Air International and 4 other airlines.

As noted before, the regulatory oversight of NAI is most demanding in that it is a globally dispersed operator with significant assets and resources in Norway, Thailand, Singapore, the US and Ireland. Executive leadership is a necessity when deciding how to deploy IAA’s safety experts to surveil this expanding carrier.









A recent spurt of articles in which John Dunkin’s name has been bandied about as President Trump’s nominee for FAA Administrator, has revived the issue of placing a qualified candidate for the Empty Chair.

[NOTE: Technically, Administrator Huerta’s term ended only months ago, but since January 20,2017, the Administration must have been aware of the vacancy.]

President Trump and John Dunkin

The WaPo article included a source’s description of Captain Dunkin’s qualifications:

“’John Dunkin isn’t just a pilot,’ an unnamed administration official told Axios.

  • ‘He’s managed airline
  • and corporate flight departments,
  • certified airlines from start-up under FAA regulations,


  • oversaw the Trump presidential campaign’s air fleet, which included managing all aviation transportation for travel to 203 cities in 43 states over the course of 21 months.’”

It is difficult to assess the depth or significance of this resume; for Google provides no more information than the above skeletal quote.

trump shuttle and Dick Cozzi

Trump and Shuttle



The first place to look, obviously, for Captain Dunkin’s certification experience is Mr. Trump’s own carrier. The airline certification of the Trump Shuttle, according to multiple sources, included Bruce Nobles (the first president); Richard F. Cozzi, formerly Pan American World Airways’ director of services planning, as vice president of operations and then President; and  John Siefert, Eastern’s vice president of shuttle operations, will be Trump’s vice president for customer service. Those would be the principals involved in the transfer to Trump ownership. If Captain Dunkin was part of the team, he was not among the top leaders.

trump fleet


A check among the very close business aviation community did not result of Dunkin’s involvement in the business other than his work with the impressive Trump fleet. The registration of N725DT Citation X became an issue during the campaign because it was flown after its expiration date.Citation X registration






Equally far from dispositive, searches of the DOT and FAA websites did not unearth any mention of Captain Dunkin as one of the key personnel on the list of airlines. [The search capabilities of both sites are limited and both tend to archive “old” documents.]

None of this is the basis for disqualification of Captain Dunkin. Knowledge of the FARs, understanding the ATC, and substantial time in the cockpit are positives but hardly conclusive as to  his candidacy.

Captain Dunkin

On a more generic basis, here are some thoughts as to what attributes qualify someone for this difficult post:

What is needed to make a Great FAA Administrator?

Posted By: Joe Del BalzoMarch 5, 2013

ARTICLE: Who Is Best Qualified to Lead an Aviation Company?


Joe Escobar wrote a thought- provoking piece about leadership of aviation companies. One of his primary lines of inquiry is the need for a CEO to have real aviation experience to be put in charge of an airline, a repair station or the FAA. As to that last entity, he made the following observation:

In the world of aviation, having aviation experience isn’t necessarily a requirement to lead. We have had FAA administrators that were not certified pilots or mechanics. Were they any less qualified to lead the FAA? I wonder how FAA inspectors feel about reporting to someone who has never turned a wrench or flown an airplane in his or her life?

It is true that the history at Eastern Airlines started with renowned pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and followed by Frank Borman, pilots of the highest order, transitioned to Frank Lorenzo. Hardly an array of talent, which neither proves nor disproves, that wings are a prerequisite to successfully manage the venture. Eddie Carlson at United or Bob Crandall at American, to name a few, suggests that cockpit or maintenance time may not be needed to manage pilots or mechanics.

The history of Administrators has run the gamut of the experience continuum from test pilots to persons with little prior history making decisions involving any form of aviation. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the head of the FAA; there is no “bottom line” against which to measure her/his ability to lead. Other indicia of how effective the top person has done are not easily defined or may be subject to any number of exogenous variables like:

  • the standards of judgment may not be a consensus choice of users as to excellence,
  • his/her record may be influenced by Congressional limits on funds or over surveillance,
  • the pace of action/inaction may reflect undue help from the Secretary and/or While House (or the obverse- may have benefited from good relations with the “supervision”) or
  • the achievements or apparent failures may reflect a strong/weak political and/or career staff.

Based on episodic information, good leadership as Administrator correlates with:

  • knowledge of aviation—when being asked to affirm or deny the decisions of the career staff, it helps to have an understanding of the activity being regulated. Soon after a new person is sworn in, it is not an unusual phenomenon for a career executive to resurrect a personal pet project; some reference as to what works/does not work in aviation may forestall a bad idea. NOTE: there have been many able Administrators who have led well without years in aviation management;
  • ability to ask good questions—senior staffers present massive amounts of information; some Administrators felt that asking questions somehow demonstrated ignorance; much to the contrary, career employees find probing questions quite stimulating, sometimes the premise of the inquiry involves assumptions that were not considered;
  • ability to listen—leaders need not lead by instructing first; it is not presumed that he/she knows the answers; subordinates really appreciate when their ideas draw the attention of the Administrator and truly get energized when they hear the leader’s reasoning why (and why not) their initiative is accepted;
  • willingness to delegate — too many executives dilute their effectiveness by insisting that the “buck” always stops here; those who learn how and who to rely upon getting things done; establishing who can be trusted to do what when is something a great executive can either intuit or learn quickly;
  • knowledge how to manage the bosses—how and when should issues be brought to the Secretary; who on the DoT staff has the Secretary’s/Deputy Secretary’s/General Counsel’s/ Assistant Secretary ‘s ear and what is the best way to work an issue through the labyrinth of policy deciders;
  • comprehension of how bureaucracies and systems work—a common phenomenon is that a high-ranking officer from one of the services issues orders to the civilian staff and is shocked when it is not implemented; the career employees are used to systems that depend on written instructions and follow-ups; oral commands are not as routinely complied with as with military organizations. Follow-up matters are critical especially when so many of the senior staff have so many priorities;
  • understanding of the Congressional process/relations—being too difficult or easy in responding to the ordinary flow of requests from your friends on the Hill; when it may be necessary to say no and when a creative resolution to a request may be worth the risk;
  • conveying to the troops that you care—this may be a repetition of the listening ability, but an Administrator, who knows what goes on below the 10th floor, is more likely to inspire voluntary work by GS-10s in the bowels of the building; the human touch carries much weight;
  • charisma, energy, great ability to communicate (including the ability to repeat/reinforce core messages), humor, great memory for names and a host of other characteristics that create a bond between the leader and the 47,000 people in the agency.

This lengthy litany of attributes makes it clear that no single leadership type is the formula for an FAA Administrator/leader. What clearly is discernible from this set of descriptions is that the person selected must have a skill set that can motivate a very large technical organization with many tasks and inordinate scrutiny. This is NOT a position where a Presidential Executive Office can repay a political favor; the safety mission demands a candidate with the highest level of skills and energy.

Disproving any claim of infallibility of this site and perhaps positively said, that there remains capacity to learn, here is a recent post in which the record of Administrator Huerta changed the analysis:

Administrator Huerta’s 8 years at FAA disproved five myths

Posted By: Joe Del BalzoJanuary 8, 2018


Administrator Huerta



Mr. Huerta, whose name appropriately in Spanish means “farm”, broke some ground during his term. Here are a few of the myths which he disproved:

  1. The Administrator “must be a pilot”; Huerta was not and his record of judgments on significant regulatory achievements, which heretofore have been thought to require cockpit time, shows that a good AOA-1 need not have a license.
  2. A corollary to #1 is that a pilot prerequisite was needed to be able to question the judgment of the career employees. At the discussion table of one Secretary of Transportation, if the Administrator made it clear that the proposal was primarily the initiative of the career staff, it would not get approval. The transition from a goal of 100% surveillance of certificate holders to a risk-based distribution of assets model (SMS) represented an endorsement of a concept which Associate Administrator Gilligan brought to Huerta and he endorsed.

3.“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Political employees are not rewarded for taking risks, for altering what had been proven for decades of safety. The US record for general aviation, particularly for the certification of aircraft, is unequaled around the world. Industry argued that the old Part 23 strictures were stifling development and growth (similarly on the 3rd Class medical). While both NPRMs consumed more time than the proponents wanted, Huerta saw that these innovations were implemented.


4.“Technology is out of Control”-This aphorism has been repeated so many times that it is etched in the marble wall OIG entrance and has fostered a movement intent on moving the ATC to the private sector. While there are valid complaints about the progress of NextGen implementation, one must recognize that the FAA’s current board of directors (the US Congress) shares some blame….

With difficult procurement rules, changing specifications/requirements from industry/controllers, a system spread over 7 time zones, managing multiple contractors, modifying a system which must remain operational 100% of the time and perhaps the most complex civil technology project in US History,

  1. To be an effective Administrator, he/she must have great, preexisting contacts with the White House, the Secretary and Congress. Huerta did not come to 800 Independence with a big Rolodex filled with power people. [He was a key member of Mitt Romney’s Olympic team.] He functioned well and over time developed credibility with the Congress based on his track record of delivering on his promises. His visible relationships with 3 Secretaries (LaHood, Foxx and Chao) appeared to be good and included the 1st Administrator appointed by a Democrat to serve for a Republican. His year with that cross-politics went better than anyone could have expected.


Unfortunately, there is not enough publicly available about Captain Dunkin. Once (if) his full history is disclosed, a thoughtful analysis can be performed. The above suggestions may provide some useful indicia.  

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