The FAA’s Got Big Problems, Funding Is Only One of Them

Republicans have been denouncing Pete Buttigieg and demanding that he be replaced as Secretary of Transportation.

They have a point. Buttigieg’s time on the job has seen some truly amazing disasters like Southwest Airlines’ Christmastime debacle and last week’s 90-minute grounding of all air traffic—the first time that’s happened since 9/11.

But do conservatives actually want government action to prevent these disasters? That would mean a better-funded Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a Secretary of Transportation who was willing to bring down the regulatory hammer on corporate America.

People like Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton are happy to score some cheap political points complaining about the chaos. But they’d be howling with outrage about “Big Government” if Buttigieg was replaced by someone willing to do what actually needs to be done.

Buttigieg vs. Republicans

Until recently, Pete Buttigieg was one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars. In 2020, he came close to winning the party’s presidential nomination—a remarkable feat given that his only previous experience in public office was a rocky tenure as mayor of a small city in Indiana. Though there’s some controversy over the result, “Mayor Pete” came in a close second behind Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses. But after getting trounced in South Carolina’s primary, he fell into line behind Joe Biden just before the Super Tuesday, putting him in the bizarre position of having won more convention delegates than the man he was dropping out to endorse.

Buttigieg’s calculation seemed clear enough at the time. He didn’t think he could beat both Biden and Sanders for the nomination, but if he helped Biden clinch it and got a cabinet appointment in the Biden administration as a consolation prize, he would be well-positioned for the future. He may have hoped for a bigger prize than Secretary of Transportation, but he was clearly ready to use whatever visibility the position gave him for everything it was worth.

Unsurprisingly, given his prominence and future ambitions, he’s been the subject of constant Republican attacks—far more than would be normal for a Secretary of Transportation.

Some of these attacks have been based on nonsense or bigotry or culture-war fluff. We’ve heard a lot about allegedly “woke” policies at the Department of Transportation, for example. And many conservatives went after Buttigieg for taking paternity leave when he and his husband Chasten adopted twins in 2021—a criticism that often came with an ugly undercurrent of homophobia.

Even in 2021, though, persistent supply chain problems provided plenty of material for more reasonable attacks. 2022 was a year of record flight cancellations. And as 2022 turned into 2023, it had never been easier to find reasons to criticize the Secretary of Transportation.

How “Mayor Pete” Became the Face of Transportation Chaos

When air travel briefly ground to a halt earlier this month, the culprit seems to have been the FAA’s ancient and overloaded computer system. Buttigieg’s defenders can point out, with at least some justice, that Congress (and not the Secretary of Transportation) would need to increase the agency’s budget.

But the timing was very bad for the ambitious resume-building Buttigieg. This new meltdown came two weeks after Southwest Airlines stranded tens of thousands of passengers—and many of their own flight attendants—on Christmas. Buttigieg called attention to the plight of the flight attendants and met with representatives of their union, perhaps seeking to restore some credit with organized labor after the Biden administration’s recent decision to crush a potential rail strike—a decision which Biden’s Secretary of Transportation had to publicly defend. And he made a show of opening an investigation.

Buttigieg could and should have used his regulatory authority to make such catastrophes far less likely long ago.

David Sirota, Editor-in-Chief of The Lever, speaking on The Daily Beast’s New Abnormal podcast, said: “Colorado’s attorney general, before the Southwest meltdown, and a bunch of other attorneys general filed a letter, an official comment letter, telling Buttigieg to finally pass a rule that’s been sitting at the Department of Transportation for four months requiring airlines to sell only flights that have adequate personnel to fly, saying that the Department should make clear it will impose significant fines for cancellations and extended delays that are weather-related or otherwise unavoidable.”

If I’d spent Christmas waiting in line at an airport to recover my checked baggage and then trying to find an alternate flight on the 26th—like one of the people I was supposed to spend the holiday with did—I might have spent some of my endless hours waiting in lines wondering why that rule had never been implemented. If I’d been keeping up on enough political news to know these things, I might also have spent some of those hours wondering why, when the time came for Secretary Buttigieg to appoint a new acting head of the FAA, he passed over the deputy administrator who would have been next in line for the job and picked a former lobbyist for the airline industry.

Certainly, I’d find it easy to nod along with extreme right-wing Sen. Tom Cotton when Cotton quipped that “Pete Buttigieg couldn’t organize a one-car funeral.” Or when his Republican colleague Sen. Ted Cruz said more dryly that the FAA needs more “competent leadership” than Buttigieg has given it.

But what do people like Cotton and Cruz actually want?

This is the same GOP that’s so concerned with government intrusions into the sacred domain of the free market that last year they quashed a proposal to cap the price of insulin.

Are they prepared to increase the FAA’s budget so they can get better computers and hire far more administrators—y’know, “government bureaucrats”—to enforce the rules? And would they actually want Joe Biden to replace Buttigieg with a Secretary of Transportation willing to use their regulatory power to work together with a new FAA head to instill the fear of Big Government in the hearts of airline executives?

I’m not holding my breath.

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