President Trump’s Political Appointments to the FAA

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Running the FAA is More Demanding than Excellent Piloting Skills

President Trump mentioned that he knows a very bright pilot to be Administrator, with the innuendo that it might be his aircraft’s chief pilot. As mentioned in the below post, running the FAA is a job demanding more than excellent piloting skills, a user’s understanding of the safety rules, a familiarity with airports, a aircraft owner’s perspective on maintenance and even great understanding of the ATC system from a left hand seat.

Particularly with the Executive Challenges of completing NextGen, inculcating SMS throughout the agency/airlines/airports, initiating the new Part 23, addressing the challenges of Commercial Space, working on Globe solutions to CO2, assuring that the U.S. remains the international safety standard — to name a few — when a new AOA-1 needs to be named,even an incredibly Impressive Chief Pilot resume should not be enough.


Shirley Ybarra

Overseeing the Transition for the Transportation Department

The US Constitution Article I, Section 4 and Article II, Section 1, call for elections that enable the peaceful transition of power between factions. The peaceful transfer of control of the federal government is a hallmark of American democracy. The elections of 1804, 1876, 1960 and 2000 all involved considerable debate and angst in the months after the vote count/electoral college was complete, but in each such instance, order prevailed and the new Chief Executive implemented his Cabinet and all of the appointments needed to govern.

shirley ybarraIt has been reported that the Trump Transition Team (; @transition2017) has selected Shirley Ybarra to organize the appointments in the Transportation Department. Ms. Ybarra, a master’s bridge player, was U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole’s senior policy advisor and special assistant for policy from 1983 to 1987 as well as former Virginia state transportation secretary. Shirley’s ability to count cards, to anticipate future plays and to husband her trump cards should result in some stellar selections.

It will be interesting to see who gets the job of Secretary. For many Administrations, the choice had much to do with politics and did not reflect substantial competence on transportation issues (except Secretaries Mineta and Lewis, both of whom had extensive backgrounds on this subject). Rep. Mica, who had been Chair of  the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, has been mentioned as a candidate after his loss in the Fall. Beyond that potential nominee, it would be pure speculation. 

Shirley YbarraTechnically Administrator Huerta holds a five year term and cannot be removed merely because of the change in Administration. His appointment expires in January 2018. Realistically, he may choose to retire; all the political appointees are subject to replacement. That means that the Administrator’s team of

  • Deputy Administrator (vacant),
  • Chief NextGen Officer,
  • Chief Counsel,
  • Associate Administrator for Airports,
  • Assistant Administrator for Communications,
  • Assistant Administrator for Government & Industry Affairs, and
  • Assistant Administrator for Policy, International Affairs, and Environment

will likely be replaced by the selections of someone other than the Administrator. In what is already a difficult management task, replacing the Huerta political team 7 individuals, who really are not your people, makes it almost impossible.

Mr. Huerta has not evidenced overly partisan management of the FAA and actually was a key member of the Romney Olympic executive team (maybe not a strong recommendation for the Administration). The Administrator also is part of the DoT hierarchy and regularly must interact with the political positions of the intermodal management team of the Secretary. That relationship may not be comfortable for a President Obama appointee. Equally, individuals of the Trump executive team may not want to divulge some of the strategies established by the White House.

Shirley YbarraIn summary, it is quite possible that the Administrator may tender his resignation upon the confirmation of his successor. It is fair to characterize the term of the Honorable Mr. Huerta as honorable, dedicated and even exhausting. No one would begrudge his return to the private sector; he has a son who is soon off to college.

Given that potential, here are some thoughts about appointing a new Administrator.


I. The statute—hopefully Ms. Ybarra can find a candidate who meets the specific criteria established by Congress. It is important that the person who occupies this seat equal or exceed these requirements:

49 U.S. Code § 106 – Federal Aviation Administration

(a) The Federal Aviation Administration is an administration in the Department of Transportation.

(b) The head of the Administration is the Administrator, who shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. When making an appointment, the President shall consider the fitness of the individual to carry out efficiently the duties and powers of the office. Except as provided in subsection (f) or in other provisions of law, the Administrator reports directly to the Secretary of Transportation. The term of office for any individual appointed as Administrator after August 23, 1994, shall be 5 years.

(c) The Administrator must—

(1) be a citizen of the United States;

(2) be a civilian; and

(3) have experience in a field directly related to aviation.

(f) Authority of the Secretary and the Administrator.— 

(2) Authority of the administrator.—The Administrator—

(a) is the final authority for carrying out all functions, powers, and duties of the Administration relating to—

(i) the appointment and employment of all officers and employees of the Administration (other than Presidential and political appointees);

(ii) the acquisition and maintenance of property, services, and equipment of the Administration;

(iii) except as otherwise provided in paragraph (3), the promulgation of regulations, rules, orders, circulars, bulletins, and other official publications of the Administration; and

(iv) any obligation imposed on the Administrator, or power conferred on the Administrator, by the Air Traffic Management System Performance Improvement Act of 1996 (or any amendment made by that Act);

(b) shall offer advice and counsel to the President with respect to the appointment and qualifications of any officer or employee of the Administration to be appointed by the President or as a political appointee;

(c) may delegate, and authorize successive redelegations of, to an officer or employee of the Administration any function, power, or duty conferred upon the Administrator, unless such delegation is prohibited by law; and

(d) except as otherwise provided for in this title, and notwithstanding any other provision of law, shall not be required to coordinate, submit for approval or concurrence, or seek the advice or views of the Secretary or any other officer or employee of the Department of Transportation on any matter with respect to which the Administrator is the final authority.


II. The Challenge

NextGen is the obvious top challenge, but the list of other important work includes:

  • The implementation of SMS and SAIS
  • Dealing with the ICAO CO2 agreement implementation
  • More challenges of the UAS implementation
  • Managing the Space regulation and potentially the new task of controlling traffic in space
  • Deciding when/how to consolidate the ATC system ( a very tricky political issue)
  • Defining a new noise measurement system and metric
  • Reviewing the many NextGen Metroplex implementation decisions which have generated so much controversy on the local level
  • Pursuant to the “Great Again” agenda spending dollars wisely on aviation infrastructure
  • Stewarding the new aircraft certification modernization as proposed for Part 23 and soon thereafter Part 25
  • Dealing with the 3rd Class Medical legislative mandate
  • Hiring controllers needed to (i) meet the shortfall projected by NATCA and (ii) meet the very different demands managing (versus controlling) under NextGen
  • Keeping the FAR regulatory approach as the Gold Standard worldwide considering the EASA/EU challenge
  • And a whole host of other problems.


III. Some further thoughts on the demands of the job:

Shirley Ybarra

What is needed to make a Great FAA Administrator?

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 understand 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.

Some additional thoughts:

  • The ability to understand the abilities of the career staff [coming to Washington with a disrespect of the good professionals who work at the FAA guarantees internal problem]
  • A record of managing a large institution and a recognition that the rules (personnel, acquisition, policy-making, travel, etc.) are likely to be VERY different than prior

Good luck, Shirley.

Yes he knows aviation:

Shirley Ybarra

But there’s this:

Shirley Ybarra

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1 Comment on "President Trump’s Political Appointments to the FAA"

  1. One of the, if not the best, ATC (CONTROLLER) employee has been forced to retire this week at 56 years old because of age only? (Pilots fly till 65?) Knows all the pluses and minuses of the system what it needs and what it doesn’t need but the U S Government will get no benefit of his years and years of experience because he is 56 YEARS OLD, 14 YEARS YOUNGER THAN PRES. TRUMP. KNOW ANY ONE WHO NEEDS HIS HELP? SEE ME. THANKS, RON

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