FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen To Depart Agency

 - April 21, 2023, 7:19 PM
(Photo: the FAA)

Billy Nolen, who stepped into the role of acting FAA administrator in April 2022 just months after he joined the agency, has announced he will be stepping down. Nolen initially joined the FAA at the beginning of 2022 to serve as associate administrator for aviation safety but took over the acting role after former FAA Administrator Steve Dickson left halfway through his five-year term.

Nolen informed the agency today of his decision to leave saying, “I will depart as a new nominee [for FAA Administrator] is named this summer.” Similar to Dickson’s reason for departing, he said, “I have given everything to this agency, and now it’s time to do the same for my family, who have sacrificed so much and supported me during my time at the FAA.”

Nolen brought a more than 30-year aviation career with him to the agency, having served in operations, regulatory, and corporate roles with airlines and with Airlines for America. During his short tenure with the FAA, the agency faced intense scrutiny as the airlines struggled to emerge from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and as a number of close safety calls became widely reported in recent months.

At the same time Nolen had earned respect on Capitol Hill, with Senate Commerce Committee ranking Republican Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggesting that he would face an easy confirmation should the White House nominate him for the administrator’s role on a permanent basis. But Nolen had a front-row seat as Biden’s initial selection for the role, Phil Washington, faced such a contentious process that he ultimately withdrew his name for consideration.

 For his part, Nolen highlighted the accomplishments over the past year, including that certification reform is nearly complete and proposals for safety management systems advanced.

“Not since the dawn of the jet age have we seen so many advances and changes in aerospace,” he told his agency colleagues in a letter. “Our mission to provide the safest aerospace system in the world requires us to adapt, learn, and innovate…to think differently. I encourage all of you to be safety innovators, and to keep challenging yesterday’s assumptions.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg responded to the decision, calling Nolen “a tremendous leader, a true expert, and a dedicated public servant.” He added Nolen has been “a great asset” to the Department of Transportation and would continue to be as the FAA prepares for an upcoming leadership transition.

Business aviation leaders, meanwhile, lauded Nolen’s service. “Billy Nolen has stepped in and provided essential leadership at a critical time for our industry,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen, calling him an effective collaborator, one that remained accessible and focused on safety.

National Air Transportation Association president Curt Castagna echoed those sentiments. “Nolen’s unwavering commitment to continuous safety improvement, meaningful industry collaboration, and workforce recruitment fit for the future has served us all well and sets a solid foundation for those who will follow.”

On Capitol Hill, leaders on both sides of the aisle further praised Nolen’s efforts but stressed this underscores the need to get a permanent administrator in place.

“Acting Administrator Billy Nolen has performed admirably under difficult circumstances at a time when the FAA is dealing with a number of vacancies in top positions of leadership, including the position of Administrator,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee chairman Sam Graves (R-Missouri). Like Cruz, Graves said, “I believe he proved that he would have made a capable Administrator had he been nominated and confirmed.”  However, Graves added Nolen’s decision to depart should “be a wakeup call for the President and his administration to fill the FAA’s ever-increasing leadership vacuum with highly qualified people without any further delay.”

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Washington), the ranking Democrat on the House T&I Committee, further said Nolen has “served admirably” in both his roles at the FAA but added, “The FAA Administrator position is an important one for the aviation safety of the flying public, and we need a Senate-confirmed leader in place as soon as possible.”