President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are under intense political pressure to get to the bottom of an issue at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that grounded flights Wednesday — and to prevent further snares in Americans’ air travel.
The FAA experienced an outage in the system that warns pilots of hazards during their upcoming flights, halting departures across the nation. While the system came back online a few hours later, the predicament came less than a month after Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights amid deadly winter storms, raising the focus on problems in commercial aviation.
Buttigieg said once flights resumed that he “directed an after-action process to determine root causes and recommend next steps.” Biden, meanwhile, told Buttigieg to report directly back to him when he learned the cause of the outage, and the administration has said that there has been no evidence of a cyberattack.
Republicans blasted the administration for the FAA meltdown.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member Garret Graves (R-La.) said on Twitter that lawmakers will “aggressively pursue accountability.”
And Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said that “we need a new nominee” to run the FAA after the systems outage, arguing that the current pick, Phil Washington, has no experience in safety and aviation. Biden had selected Washington, the CEO of Denver International Airport, to run the agency, but there have been no hearings to confirm him. Former FAA head Steve Dickson resigned in March.
“The easy thing is going to be for either side to put blame on the administration, but we need to understand what the facts are related to what actually caused the issue,” Robert Mariner, a Department of Transportation career official under former Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Trump, told The Hill.
Both the White House and Buttigieg have reiterated that the flight groundings on Wednesday morning were out of an abundance of caution. Buttigieg quickly made the rounds on cable news and said that his primary interest is to ensure that this kind of a disruption doesn’t happen again.
“Certainly, when there’s an issue in the FAA that needs to get looked at, we’re going to own it. Same as we ask airlines to own their companies and their operations. But the bottom line for us is always going to be safety,” he said on CNN.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the computer issues began on Tuesday afternoon and were worked on overnight and that Biden was told about the ground stop before it went into effect on Wednesday morning. She added that there will be an “after-action process, and we’ll move from there.”
The situation raises questions about whether the FAA systems are out of date and need to be updated, which also puts pressure on Buttigieg to prioritize modernizing the infrastructure.
Biden often touts himself as an infrastructure president after he signed into law the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a huge legacy item for him.
The law includes $1 billion for FAA facilities and equipment, $3 billion for airport infrastructure development, and $1 billion for a terminal program. The investments are intended to address repair and maintenance backlogs and create modern, resilient and sustainable port, airport and freight infrastructure.
Mariner warned, however, that funding takes time to go into effect. Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law in November 2021.
“Just cause money is being thrown on the infrastructure issue, it still takes time to get projects designed and work through the environmental process,” Mariner said.
He added that while updating FAA systems could be an issue that brings in bipartisan support, the situation will likely be politicized.
“I’m hoping it’s an opportunity for there to be some bipartisan support, that’s always the hope, especially when you’re dealing with infrastructure,” Mariner said. “But now, in light of the political realities that we’re dealing with, the unfortunate part is I do anticipate some not-necessary pushback — put blame on the administration.”
The grounding of flights for about two hours on Wednesday had repercussions throughout the day. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 8,000 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were delayed and more than 1,000 were canceled.
Buttigieg appeared confident that the same type of issue can be prevented in the future.
“These kinds of disruptions should not happen, and my primary interest — now that we’ve gotten through the immediate disruptions of the morning — is understanding exactly how this was possible and exactly what steps are needed to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” the secretary said on CNN.
Buttigieg allies are also confident that he will be able to get that job done.
“I have full confidence that he is up to the job and up to the task. He’s a smart guy and a good visionary and a good leader. I am more than confident that he will be able to do a good job,” said Brandon Neal, a friend and former political adviser.
Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday that Biden has confidence in Buttigieg as well.
But the systems outage is compounding an already rocky month for Buttigieg.
All eyes were on the secretary during the massive Southwest cancellations two weeks ago, when the airline canceled more than half of its flights over three days and left thousands of travelers stranded.
Since then, he has been under pressure to help get travelers home, ensure they are reimbursed for unexpected costs and take steps to prevent that kind of meltdown from happening again.
Congress has already said it will hold hearings in the wake of the Southwest issues. Meanwhile, Buttigieg has been sending updates about refunds for tickets or other expenses for the thousands of Southwest travelers who faced flight issues.
“If Southwest (or any airline) is not providing you with required refunds or reimbursements, let us know by filing a complaint,” he said on Twitter this week, with a link to a government website.
It’s a high-profile task for the secretary, who is a former and potentially future presidential candidate. His performance in the Biden administration is under a microscope in part because he is largely considered to have aspirations beyond this role, possibly all the way to the Oval Office.
The former mayor of South Bend, Ind., exceeded expectations in 2020, winning the Iowa caucuses before bowing out of the race and endorsing Biden.
How he handles both situations — the FAA outage and the Southwest cancellations — could be seen as something of a trial run before he explores other political goals.
Mariner said that, when talking to former colleagues at the Transportation Department, he has “heard nothing short of stellar words in his favor.”
“I’ve been very pleased with how quickly he’s grasped transportation. As a former mayor of South Bend, Ind., to go from that to overseeing one of the largest transportation systems across multiple modes, literally in the world. He’s done an amazing job,” he said.