Randy Babbit's unlamented departure from FAA

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Barbara Hollingsworth
Halfway through his five-year term, Obama appointee Randy Babbitt crashed his career as head of the Federal Aviation Administration. He failed to inform his boss that he had been caught driving down the wrong side of Lee Highway. An embarrassed U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- who just a year ago initiated a national crackdown on drunk driving -- didn't find about about his underling's arrest until he saw a press release 36 hours later.

Babbitt was in charge of overseeing drug and alcohol testing for all the nation's pilots and air traffic controllers. His flameout was a delicious irony for members of the FAA Whistleblowers Alliance, who noted that his tenure at FAA was marked by other scandals and embarrassments. Remember the time a commercial airliner couldn't land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport because the air traffic controller was taking a nap?

Babbitt was caught flat-footed when the media reported a 50 percent increase in air traffic control errors at some of the nation's busiest airports. "The previous administration cooked the books on safety, illegally underreporting ground errors and near mid-air collisions," former FAA inspector Rich Wyeroski told The Washington Examiner. But Babbitt didn't come clean, says Wyeroski, who was fired nine years ago for reporting runway incursions at Long Island's MacArthur Airport. Meanwhile, Babbitt refused to require transponders on gliders so other aircraft could "see" them, a relatively cheap safety fix.

Babbitt's deputy, Michael Huerta, a Clinton appointee with no aviation experience, will take over as acting administrator. But Huerta was the FAA official in charge of the troubled, glitch-prone NextGen project to replace World War II-era radar with a Global Positioning System. It's now projected to cost up to $40 billion over the next decade with no guarantee it will work.

Babbitt did nothing to stop commercial airliners from scheduling major maintenance work at FAA-certified, but unsecured foreign facilities in countries like El Salvador, where Third World mechanics are paid $2 an hour to repair Boeings and Airbuses.

Former FAA manager Gabe Bruno was hounded out of the FAA after reporting that thousands of fraudulent mechanics certificates had been sold, including one to 9/11 terrorist Saeed Hamid Al-Ghamdi and 30 of his fellow Saudis who all shared the same address. Bruno unsuccessfully tried to get Babbitt to track down all of the criminally obtained certificates. But neither Babbitt nor LaHood had any interest in this potential threat to national security. "It's been relegated to the black hole of government non-accountability," Bruno said.

And despite ongoing complaints about pilot fatigue, it was not until the National Transportation Safety Board identified it as one of commercial aviation's most pressing problems following its investigation of the fatal 2009 Colgan Air crash that Babbitt finally made it an FAA priority.

The newly established Office of Audit and Evaluation was supposed to investigate illegal retaliation against past and present FAA employees, but whistleblowers say it just continues to stonewall them. The final straw was when Babbitt touted the FAA's "outstanding work" in a statement announcing his resignation -- the verbal equivalent of giving everybody on the losing team a trophy.

There's a nascent movement to replace Babbitt with Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger -- the US Airways pilot who successfully landed crippled Flight 1549 on the Hudson River and also happens to be an internationally known and highly respected aviation safety expert.

What Sully did was "outstanding work." On Babbitt's watch, the FAA did not even live up to its own standards. The sad thing is that at the end, Babbitt could no longer tell the difference.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.

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