The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced last week his plans to leave the agency this summer, with no clear successor in sight as the agency is due for reauthorization by Congress, and as it continues to work on necessary technology upgrades.

Billy Nolen stepped up in an acting capacity for the FAA administrator role in April of last year. In July 2022, President Joe Biden named his first pick to head the agency, but after a long-awaited confirmation hearing, Phil Washington withdrew his nomination last month. Nolen is expected to stay on as acting administrator until the White House names a new nominee for the post.

The White House is now under more pressure to quickly find a replacement for Nolen, as the aviation sector faces backlash from failing technology and staffing shortages, and as Congress gears up to reauthorize the FAA by Oct. 1.

“Acting Administrator Billy Nolen has performed admirably under difficult circumstances at a time when the FAA is dealing with a number of vacancies in top positions of leadership, including the position of Administrator,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., said in a statement last week.

“This should be a wakeup call for the President and his administration to fill the FAA’s ever-increasing leadership vacuum with highly qualified people without any further delay,” Rep. Graves said. “Our aviation system is under stress, and with Congress actively working to reauthorize the policies and programs of the FAA, it’s critical that these vital roles within the agency do not continue to go unfilled.”

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation met with Nolen today to discuss how the a proposed increase in the President’s budget request for the FAA in fiscal year (FY) 2024 will advance modernization and bolster the agency’s workforce.

Nolen noted that the FY24 budget request of $19.8 billion is an increase of $784 million from FY23.

“Today we’re here to examine how the fiscal year 2024 President’s budget advances aviation safety and improves our national airspace system,” Ranking Member Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said during the April 26 hearing.

“This subcommittee has increased funding for the FAA over the past several years, and in a year where we hope to see a FAA reauthorization pass through Congress it is critical we continue to provide critical investments,” Rep. Quigley said. “It is our duty to help the FAA modernize its air traffic control system, improve efficiency, transition legacy equipment to modern platforms, and develop a highly skilled workforce. And I believe the budget does just that.”

Nolen testified that $117 million of the FY24 budget request has been allocated to increase hiring and bolster the aviation sector’s workforce. He said that the FAA plans to hire 1,800 trainees in FY24 – an increase of 300 above the 1,500 they are on track to hire this FY.

“Funding to hire and train air traffic controllers is only part of the equation,” Nolen said. “They need modern equipment and fully maintained buildings to perform their duty. One such piece of equipment is the NOTAM [Notice to Air Missions] system.”

The FAA’s NOTAM system broke down earlier this year, causing the agency to ground all flights nationwide.

The President’s budget request for the FAA includes $19.6 million to retire the agency’s aging databases and applications and move to a more reliable, modern system. The request, Nolen said, “takes our modernization efforts one step further by providing $115 million toward accelerating other priority projects.”

He continued, adding, “But we cannot modernize for tomorrow if we don’t keep pace for today. Many of our air traffic buildings need urgent attention.”

The budget asks for $510.8 million to improve air traffic control facilities. Nolen said the backlog of uncompleted renovations and repairs for facilities that directly support operations is $5.3 billion, and the average control building is more than 60 years old.

During the hearing, members of the subcommittee expressed bipartisan support for FAA’s need to modernize and expressed their gratitude for Nolen’s leadership at the agency over the past year.

“We are going to drain every last drop out of you we can possibly get,” subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said. “We wish you well. I think as you notice from the tone of the hearing this is not a particularly partisan issue. We all fly, we all have the same concerns our constituents do. We appreciate the terrific job you and your colleagues at the FAA have done for the flying public over the years.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.