The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration will leave the agency this summer, putting pressure on the White House to quickly find a replacement after President Joe Biden’s first choice withdrew last month.
Billy Nolen, who has been acting administrator for the past year, said in a memo to staff that it has been a dream job.
“But now it is time for a new captain to guide the FAA,” Nolen said in the memo. “I told (Transportation Secretary Pete) Buttigieg and notified the White House that I will depart as a new nominee is named this summer.”
Biden’s first pick, Denver International Airport CEO Phillip Washington, withdrew in March after it became clear his nomination was dead in the Senate Commerce Committee, where Democrats hold just a one-vote majority. Washington faced stiff opposition from Republicans, who said he lacked enough aviation experience, and failed to win public support from an independent and a moderate Democrat on the committee.
Some Republican senators said Nolen — a former airline pilot who briefly ran the FAA’s safety office — would have been a better choice, but there was no indication that he was under consideration.
Asked two weeks ago whether Nolen might be nominated for the job, Buttigieg — whose department includes the FAA — said he would not discuss names.
In a statement Friday, Buttigieg said, “Billy is a tremendous leader, a true expert, and a dedicated public servant. He has kept safety as the FAA’s north star through one of the most complex periods in modern aviation.”
The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed leader since Stephen Dickson stepped down in March 2022, halfway through his five-year term.
The agency is under public scrutiny after several close calls between airline planes, some of which appeared to have been caused by FAA air traffic controllers clearing planes to use the same runway at roughly the same time.
Nolen responded by convening a “safety summit” in March, which was attended by dozens of representatives from airlines, pilot unions and other groups. He has said aviation is safer than ever — there have been no fatal crashes involving U.S. airline planes since 2009 — but that the FAA cannot become complacent.
The FAA also faces staffing shortages that have slowed air traffic, and an outage in an alert system in January briefly stopped all departing flights nationwide.