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Babbitt Leaves U.S. Aviation Agency Amid Safety, Fund Debate

Former U.S. Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt
Randy Babbitt, former U.S. Federal Aviation Administrator. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Randy Babbitt’s departure from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration comes as the agency debates pilot-fatigue rules and faces a second partial shutdown should Congress allow its funding to expire.

Babbitt resigned as the agency’s administrator yesterday after his boss learned about his Dec. 3 arrest for driving while intoxicated through a police press release. The FAA’s deputy administrator, Michael Huerta, was named acting FAA leader, the Transportation Department said.

Family members of the 50 victims of the Colgan Air crash Feb. 12, 2009, are concerned that President Barack Obama’s administration may delay or compromise on a proposed rule that would restrict the number of hours pilots can work, Scott Maurer, whose daughter died in the 2009 crash near Buffalo, said in an interview. Congress directed the FAA to complete the pilot-fatigue rule, which Babbitt had championed, by Aug. 1.

“We’ve got critical stuff that needs to get done,” Maurer said. “We need leadership.”

Huerta, who has overseen the agency’s efforts to build a so-called NextGen air traffic system, is qualified to take over, John Hansman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor, said in an interview. Hansman is chairman of the FAA’s Research, Engineering and Development Advisory Committee.

The agency is in the process of setting up the satellite-based navigation system.

Not ‘Particularly Adverse’

The FAA has operated through a series of legislative extensions as Congress failed to set policy goals for the agency for more than four years. About 4,000 FAA employees, excluding air-traffic controllers, were furloughed for two weeks in July and August when lawmakers disagreed on labor issues and funding levels. The most recent extension ends in January.

Babbitt’s departure won’t have “a particularly adverse impact,” Hansman said.

Republican Confirmation

It’s unlikely that Senate Republicans would vote to confirm the Obama administration’s nomination of a new administrator to the FAA, Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board who now consults on aviation issues at O’Neill & Associates in Washington, said in an interview. They hope their party will win the White House and that they could then appoint a replacement for the five-year position, Goelz said.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood accepted the resignation yesterday, according to an e-mailed statement from Babbitt. Babbitt, 65, was arrested Dec. 3 after police spotted him driving on the wrong side of the road in Fairfax, Virginia, police said in a press release.

LaHood told reporters in Washington yesterday that he had learned of Babbitt’s arrest from the police press release on Dec. 5. Babbitt initially went on leave after officials learned of the arrest.

LaHood has spoken out on drunk driving to improve safety on U.S. roadways. A year ago, he announced a crackdown on drivers who drink during the holidays.

As FAA administrator, Babbitt oversaw drug- and alcohol-testing programs for the agency’s air-traffic controllers and for U.S. airline pilots. Commercial pilots must report drunk-driving convictions to the FAA.

Sleeping Controllers

“Serving as FAA Administrator has been an absolute honor and the highlight of my professional career,” Babbitt said in his statement. “But I am unwilling to let anything cast a shadow on the outstanding work done 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by my colleagues at the FAA.”

Babbitt’s agency was tested earlier this year when air-traffic controllers were caught sleeping on the job. Nine incidents in which controllers were asleep or didn’t respond to radio calls came to light, raising concerns that the overnight shifts they regularly worked were fatiguing.

The agency adopted several measures to limit exhaustion, including extending rest periods between shifts and allowing controllers to listen to the radio while working overnight. It didn’t endorse napping, which a panel studying controller schedules had recommended.

Babbitt was an airline pilot for 25 years and rose to become the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots’ labor union in North America. At the FAA, where he was sworn in June 1, 2009, he brought smoother relations with labor groups, particularly the agency’s controllers.

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