WASHINGTON — President Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Aviation Administration, Phillip A. Washington, faced criticism at his confirmation hearing on Wednesday over his lack of aviation experience, with some Republican senators casting him as unqualified for the post.
The nomination of Mr. Washington, the chief executive of Denver International Airport, has been clouded with uncertainty in the Senate amid questions about his experience and his entanglement in a public corruption investigation. He was pressed on both topics at the hearing, which was held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
“The F.A.A. can’t afford to be led by someone who needs on-the-job training,” said Senator Ted Budd, Republican of North Carolina.
The agency has been without permanent leadership since Stephen Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines executive who was appointed by President Donald J. Trump, stepped down nearly a year ago. The void atop the F.A.A. has received more attention during what has been a bumpy stretch for the nation’s air travel system.
An operational meltdown by Southwest Airlines around Christmas and an F.A.A. system outage in January caused widespread flight disruptions, and there have been a string of near collisions at airports that have raised questions about aviation safety.
Mr. Washington served in the Army for 24 years, rising to the rank of command sergeant major. Later, he led Denver’s Regional Transportation District and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and he became chief executive of Denver’s airport, which is one of the world’s busiest, in 2021.
Mr. Biden nominated him to lead the F.A.A. last July, though he did not receive a hearing in the last Congress and the president resubmitted his nomination in January. He would be the first Black person confirmed as F.A.A. administrator.
A Divided Congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
“This would be a landmark achievement, and there has never been an F.A.A. administrator nominee that has come from the enlisted ranks,” said Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and the chairwoman of the Commerce Committee. “The U.S. Army taught Mr. Washington how to get things done and get them done right.”
At the hearing, Mr. Washington vowed that safety would be his top priority. He responded to concerns about his lack of aviation experience by saying that he had not been a train operator but still had been honored as the best public transportation chief executive in the country.
“We cannot think about doing things the old way, and so I think that a fresh perspective is needed,” Mr. Washington said. “Obviously safety is No. 1.”
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He added, “My broad transportation knowledge and real-world leadership experience of both military and transportation infrastructure systems serve me well.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the panel, argued that Mr. Washington was simply not qualified for the position. He cited the aviation backgrounds of previous F.A.A. leaders and peppered Mr. Washington with technical questions related to the Boeing 737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
“I believe your record is woefully lacking,” Mr. Cruz told him, “and in fact, you have zero aviation safety experience.”
Mr. Cruz also questioned Mr. Washington over his role in a public corruption investigation in Los Angeles, and he noted that a former employee at Denver’s airport had recently filed a lawsuit making allegations of discrimination and retaliation. Mr. Washington was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
The Los Angeles inquiry involves no-bid contracts awarded by the transit system, known as Metro, to a nonprofit to operate a sexual harassment hotline. Last year, the California attorney general’s office took over the investigation from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; the attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Mr. Washington has denied wrongdoing.
Some Democratic lawmakers came to Mr. Washington’s defense at the hearing. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii described him as a “skilled and dedicated public administrator with an extensive record showing that he knows transportation.” Mr. Schatz said that Mr. Washington was “facing a smear campaign” waged by opponents who were “trying to desperately turn every aspect of his career into a scandal.”
Senator John Hickenlooper, Democrat of Colorado and a former mayor of Denver, said Mr. Washington had “built a reputation of coming into organizations filled with challenges and successfully transforming them into successes.”
“He’s not an airline industry insider using this role as a position for the industry to be policing itself,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “The challenges facing F.A.A. are those of managing a large, complex bureaucracy badly in need of modernization. And certainly in that respect, he’s no novice.”
Republicans have also raised another issue with Mr. Washington’s nomination: They say that because federal law requires the F.A.A. administrator to be a civilian, Mr. Washington is not eligible unless Congress passes a waiver to allow him to serve, given his past military service. Such a waiver would need to be approved not just by the Senate, but also by the Republican-controlled House.
Mr. Cruz said that if Democrats voted to confirm Mr. Washington without passing a waiver, “a legal cloud will hang over every single F.A.A. action.”
The Biden administration’s position is that Mr. Washington does not require a waiver, said Olivia Dalton, a White House spokeswoman, who noted that he retired from the Army more than two decades ago.
“This nomination has been pending for months,” Ms. Dalton said. “This is a role with a key safety mandate, and we believe it’s time to move swiftly on confirmation.”