The aviation community has become increasingly concerned that the FAA could be without a permanent leader for an extended period following the indefinite postponement last month of a confirmation hearing for Bobby Sturgell before the Senate Commerce Committee. President Bush formally nominated Sturgell to a five-year term as administrator in October. Sturgell, the deputy administrator, has been serving as acting administrator since Marion Blakey left the agency in September (BA, Sept. 17/115).
While Sturgell´s nomination was generally well received last fall, many aviation leaders suggested that Senate Democrats would not give a Bush nominee a five-year term with a presidential election drawing near. They believed that Bush would end up making Sturgell a "recess" appointment - naming him to the post after Congress adjourned. Under such a scenario, Sturgell would have become administrator for the remainder of the Bush presidency. In December it appeared the nomination might go forward after the Senate Commerce Committee scheduled a Dec. 20 hearing (BA, Dec. 10/261), but that hearing was subsequently postponed.
The Senate did not act on the nomination, but Bush was unable to designate Sturgell or any other nominees as recess appointments because Senate leaders have been holding daily "pro forma" sessions. No business is conducted during those brief gatherings, but because the Senate is technically not "in recess" it blocks any recess appointments.
Sturgell is one of about 75 appointments being held up in the Senate, noted National Air Transportation Association President James Coyne, who said the Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a complex round of "horse trading" that involves holding up nominations while Democrats attempt to wrest concessions from the White House on various programs and issues - and vice versa.
Last month´s hearing also was postponed as some key East Coast senators, including New York Democrat Charles Schumer and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, had reportedly threatened to place a "hold" on the Sturgell nomination in protest of the Department of Transportation´s plan to ease air congestion in the New York metropolitan area.
Having an acting administrator at FAA whose future is uncertain is particularly unfortunate in an election year, Coyne said, because "a lot of things [at FAA] are going to become political that shouldn´t be." Coyne, a former Republican House member, said, "If there´s ever a time when you want someone in place [at FAA] it´s during the election year silly season."
The absence of a leader with some clear longevity at FAA means the FAA bureaucracy won´t be as responsive and "things won´t be getting done," Coyne said. "It slows things down when we should be accelerating," he said, noting that a number of key decisions are coming up regarding FAA´s NextGen air traffic control modernization program.
The National Business Aviation Association added, "The appointment of an FAA Administrator to a full term is important to all aviation segments, and we hope the Senate will be able to address the matter as soon as possible."
The Air Transport Association agreed. "We strongly urge the Senate to confirm Acting Administrator Sturgell as the next administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration," said ATA CEO Jim May. "Our air transportation network cannot be without a leader, especially as we face the time-critical challenge of modernizing our nation´s aviation infrastructure."
Blakey, who is now the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, noted that Congress established a five-year term for FAA administrators to provide stability and continuity at the agency. "It is critical for the smooth operation of our nation´s air transportation system to have a person confirmed and appointed for a five-year term as soon as possible," she said, adding that Sturgell "is superbly qualified for the position."
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, expressed dismay at the decision to postpone the Sturgell hearing, saying "Without a confirmed FAA Administrator, safety and modernization projects will be left to the whims of a rudderless federal bureaucracy...It is beyond me why anyone in the Senate would want to hold up filling this vital leadership role."