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FAA Nominee Grilled by Senators on Whistle-Blowers, Rule Delays

The nominee to lead the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration was peppered with questions today about delayed safety rules and why the FAA has more valid whistle-blower complaints than other U.S. agencies.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, chastised Michael Huerta, the acting FAA administrator, at a confirmation hearing for his answers on what the agency is doing to speed airline-pilot training regulations.

“This is not an answer at all,” Rockefeller said of Huerta’s vow to do everything possible to speed rules for new simulator training.

Congress required that the rule be completed last year. The FAA doesn’t expect it can finish until Oct. 21, 2013, according to an agency website posting.

Rockefeller and other Senate Democrats said they support Huerta’s nomination. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and chairman of the committee’s aviation subcommittee, said the FAA needs a permanent administrator.

“Not having an administrator sends the wrong message to the airline industry,” Cantwell said.

Unlike most U.S. administration positions, which last only as long as a president serves, the FAA administrator has a five-year term. If Huerta wins Senate approval, he could serve through the four-year term of whoever is elected in November.

Obama, Romney

Four years ago, senators blocked the nomination of another acting FAA administrator, Bobby Sturgell. Sturgell, a Republican, was opposed by Democrats.

Huerta, 56, has worked for both major presidential candidates. He was managing director of the Salt Lake Olympic Organizing Committee led by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, before being named deputy FAA administrator in June 2010.

He became acting administrator Dec. 5, 2011, after Randy Babbitt’s resignation following his arrest on drunk-driving charges. Babbitt was later acquitted at trial.

While serving as deputy administrator, Huerta oversaw the development of the agency’s NextGen air-traffic system, which will replace radars with satellite navigation for tracking aircraft. The agency estimates it will cost $42 billion and take decades to complete.

Employee Complaints

The hearing comes about a month after the U.S. Office of Special Counsel wrote to the White House and Congress raising concerns about the number of whistle-blower complaints at the agency.

The FAA has the highest rate of substantiated whistle-blower complaints of any federal agency, according to data from the special counsel office, which protects employees who raise concerns about government wrongdoing.

In response to questions from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a Texas Republican, Huerta said the agency had set up an office devoted to handling whistle-blower complaints

“That has done a lot to create an environment and a quick response,” Huerta said.

Delayed Rule

Family members of the victims in a 2009 crash near Buffalo of a Pinnacle Airlines Corp.’s Colgan Air flight before the hearing urged that senators ask Huerta why safety rules mandated in the wake of the accident have been delayed, according to an e-mailed statement. The crash killed 50 people.

The Flight 3407 Families want to see pilot training standards revamped.

Huerta said that the agency received an unusually large number of comments on its proposed changes. Analyzing those comments led to the delay, Huerta said.

“Don’t talk to me about lots and lots of comments,” Rockefeller said in response. “Everything is like that in Washington.”

The committee hasn’t scheduled a vote on Huerta’s nomination.

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