Hearing delayed, FAA still lacks permanent chief

 - February 7, 2008, 5:59 AM

A Senate confirmation hearing on the nomination of acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell to become the next permanent head of the agency was postponed abruptly in the days before Christmas. Aides to the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee blamed Senate fatigue and the approaching holidays for the delay.

But Republicans charged that it was politics and Congress’s penchant for micromanaging the FAA that scuttled the hearing for the White House nominee. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) threatened to put a “hold” on the nomination until he is satisfied with the agency’s response to questions raised about the Northeast airspace redesign plan. A “hold” puts a freeze on further Senate action until it is withdrawn by the sponsor.

Sturgell, who was deputy administrator under former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, was named acting Administrator of the agency in October. He was nominated to lead the agency the same month. Menendez said the nomination would not be considered until after the Senate reconvened in late January.

A spokeswoman for the committee said the previous hearing was postponed because the Senate had already adjourned for the holidays. She said the confirmation will be rescheduled on a mutually agreeable date, possibly later this month.

Menendez and Reps. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) and Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) complained at a joint news conference that the FAA had reneged on public statements that it would not activate new routes for airplanes taking off from Philadelphia and Newark airports until this summer. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also threatened a “hold” to protest the FAA plan to ease air congestion in the New York metropolitan area.

Consistent Leadership
In August, general aviation interests and the airlines sent a joint letter to President Bush urging him to appoint someone quickly to run the FAA following Blakey’s completion of her five-year term in September.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, charged that Democrats orchestrated the delay in confirming Sturgell to appease special interests.

“This inaction by some in the Senate has left the FAA without congressionally approved leadership and will result in [leaving unfilled] a critical position key to aiding our system at this important juncture,” he said. “Without a confirmed FAA Administrator, safety and modernization projects will be left to the whims of a rudderless federal bureaucracy.”

During the 1990s, the FAA had five Administrators in as many years. Congress then recognized that the agency needed stability and consistency in leadership and established a five-year term for the Administrator.

Blakey, who now heads the Aerospace Industries Association, said, “It is critical for the continued smooth operation of our nation’s air transportation system to have a person confirmed and appointed for a five-year term as soon as possible.” She called Sturgell “superbly qualified” for the position.