Airport advocates lament hold on Obama FAA nominee

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper

The hold on President Obama’s nomination of interim Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta for a full term could cause turbulence in the national aviation industry, the group that advocates for airports said Thursday.

A Senate committee approved Huerta’s confirmation this week, but Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said Wednesday that he is blocking a full vote because Huerta’s five-year term at the FAA would last through Mitt Romney’s first term if the presumptive Republican nominee wins the White House.

Airports Council International-North America Vice President Jane Calderwood told The Hill on Thursday that the FAA has already had too many bumps in recent months.

“The FAA has taken more than its fair share of hits over the last year beginning with the shutdown,” Calderwood said in reference to a two-week furlough of FAA employees last year during a fight in Congress over the agency’s funding.

Calderwood said the airport industry was glad to see Huerta’s nomination approved this week by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which voted unanimously to move the FAA chief to the floor for a vote of the full Senate.

“We were not surprised that not a single nay was heard when the vote was taken given Huerta’s experience and qualifications,” she said. “What did surprise us is the fact that despite every major poll showing the American public are most concerned about jobs and the economy, a nominee of Huerta’s caliber who has been confirmed by the Senate before would not be brought up for a vote quickly.”

Huerta was confirmed to be deputy FAA administrator in 2010, serving under former FAA chief Randy Babbitt. He was promoted to interim FAA administrator in December 2011 after Babbitt resigned followed a drunken-driving arrest.

The charges against Babbitt were later dropped. However, Obama tapped Huerta for a full five-year term in March.

Calderwood said Thursday that Huerta’s confirmation to be full-time FAA chief was important because of the “fiscal cliff looming and the lack of any information about how sequestration will impact everything from Next Gen and [the Airport Improvement Program] to air traffic control.

“Airports account for more than 8 percent of national gross domestic product and support more than 7 percent of the U.S. workforce,” she said.  “In order to maintain our role, we need a full time FAA administrator who will dedicate their term of service to working with all the stakeholders to create a national aviation policy that will ensure we remain both an economic engine for the country and retain and improve our global competitiveness.”

A spokesman for DeMint told The Hill on Wednesday that the outspoken South Carolina lawmaker who is a Tea Party favorite was concerned about labor issues at the national aviation agency.

“Sen. DeMint will ask for a full debate and vote on this nominee as he has strong concerns about FAA’s labor policies,” DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said in a statement provided to The Hill.

“Additionally, it would be unusual to confirm a high-level nominee to a five-year term so close to the end of a presidential term,” Denton continued.

Senate Commerce Committee spokesman Vincent Morris told The Hill this week “[T]here was never a good reason to block Mr. Huerta, and it’s a shame that he and the FAA are being hung out to dry for no good reason.”

Unlike Babbitt, who was a former pilot, Huerta did not come to the FAA with a background in aviation.

Prior to being appointed to the FAA in 2010, Huerta worked at a technology company called Affiliated Computer Services. He served as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Ports, International Trade and Commerce in the 1980s and was executive director of the Port of San Francisco from 1989 to 1993.

Huerta also worked at the Department of Transportation during former President Bill Clinton’s administration. He was also managing director of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, which were managed by Romney.


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