US Senate approves Biden nominee to lead FAA on 98-0 vote

FILE PHOTO: Passengers wait for the resumption of flights at O’Hare International Airport

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted 98-0 to approve President Joe Biden's nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration, Michael Whitaker, as the agency faces questions about near-miss safety incidents and air traffic control staffing issues.

The FAA has been without a permanent head for more than 18 months after a prior nominee withdrew. Whitaker, a former deputy FAA administrator, will be on the job as early as Wednesday, said Katie Thomson, the current No. 2 FAA official.

Whitaker said this month the agency must address a persistent air traffic controller shortage and a spate of near-miss airplane incidents and "really drive the most serious ones down to a level of zero."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating seven runway incursion events since January, including a near collision between a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 and a Cessna Citation 560X business jet in San Diego.

Thomson said the FAA soon expects to receive a report from an independent safety review team named in April to look at ways to boost air safety after a series of close calls.

The FAA said in September it would again extend cuts to minimum flight requirements at congested New York City-area airports through October 2024. New York Terminal Radar Approach Control staffing is just at 54% of recommended levels.

U.S. airlines have expressed growing frustration with air traffic control staff shortages.

A government watchdog said in June critical air traffic facilities face significant staffing challenges, posing risks to air traffic operations. At several facilities, controllers are working mandatory overtime and six-day work weeks to cover shortages.

One issue Whitaker will face is the certification of a new Boeing 737 MAX model.

Whitaker has said he was not involved in the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX when he was deputy FAA administrator. The plane was grounded worldwide for 20 months after two fatal 737 MAX crashes killed 346 people.

Boeing is awaiting FAA certification of the 737 MAX 7, a small version of the best-selling plane. In July, Boeing said the first MAX 7 delivery had been delayed to 2024.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler and Richard Chang)