Citing concerns, senators delay Sturgell hearing

 - February 26, 2008, 6:09 AM

Shortly after a Senate confirmation hearing last month for acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell to take the job permanently, New Jersey’s two Democratic senators announced they were putting a “hold” on the Bush nomination.

A “hold” is an informal practice by which a senator informs the floor leader that he or she does not want a particular bill or other measure to reach the floor for consideration by the full body.

Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg placed the “hold” because of their dispute with the FAA over redesign of airspace in the Northeast and concerns about recent near-collisions and runway incursions, as well as the exodus of controllers who are retiring as soon as they become eligible.

Sturgell was named acting Administrator of the agency in October. President Bush nominated him to lead the agency for a five-year term later the same month.

With the “holds,” most observers expect that Sturgell will continue to serve in an interim capacity for the next year. When his first scheduled confirmation was abruptly postponed shortly 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 that scuttled the hearing. At that time, Menendez threatened to put a “hold” on the nomination until he is satisfied with the agency’s response to questions raised about the airspace redesign plan.

Permanent Leader Needed
In August last year, general aviation interests and the airlines sent a joint letter to President Bush urging him to appoint someone quickly to run the FAA when former Administrator Marion Blakey’s term ended in September. But the holds prevent the nomination from coming to the Senate floor for a vote.

“The FAA needs a leader with a new perspective and new ideas to improve flight safety and performance,” Lautenberg said. “Mr. Sturgell helped create the policies that left our air traffic controllers overworked and understaffed, our runways in dangerous condition, more air noise on our communities and the worst flight delays in our history. It’s time for President Bush to nominate an Administrator who solves transportation problems, rather than creates more of them.”

Both senators wrote to the FAA last year about reports of a dramatic increase in flights coming into Newark with a minimum amount of fuel remaining in the tanks but said the agency has not produced statistics or an adequate answer.

“I have raised a number of serious safety and traffic issues with the FAA, and its responses, time and again, have shown minimal concern and a lack of urgency,” said Menendez. “Near misses on runways and in the air, increased noise for New Jersey residents, not enough experienced air traffic controllers on staff, planes flying into Newark with a minimum amount of fuel left in their tanks–these are issues that require immediate action and answers.”

He added that he hopes the delay in Sturgell’s nomination will either spark the FAA to get moving on these issues or result in a new nominee who grasps the sense of urgency.