Dan Elwell, who flew Boeing 757s, 767s, DC-10s and MD-80s over a 16-year commercial pilot career with American Airlines, heads into an uncertain flight path as he takes the captain’s seat at FAA.

Elwell, who was named FAA’s deputy administrator last June, became acting FAA administrator Jan. 7 following the end of Michael Huerta’s five-year term leading the agency. A seasoned hand in Washington DC aviation circles as a lobbyist and consultant—he has held high-level positions with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and Airlines for America (A4A)—Elwell will not have to learn the ropes in the nation’s capital. 

But he does take the helm of the agency during an uncertain time for FAA. For starters, it is not known how long Elwell will hold the post. Huerta served as acting administrator for nearly four months before being nominated by former US President Barack Obama as the permanent agency head, and ended up serving for more than a year in the acting administrator role before being sworn in to lead the agency for a five-year term in January 2013. 

US President Donald Trump has not indicated when he will nominate the next FAA administrator. Elwell could certainly be a candidate for the post on a more permanent basis. His experience as both a US Air Force and airline pilot will likely be a plus with Trump, who expressed dismay that Huerta was not a pilot and said it would be “better to have a pilot” leading FAA.

Reauthorization deadline

Elwell faces an immediate challenge: FAA, operating under a temporary extension, needs to be reauthorized by Congress by March 31. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania), the chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has announced he will not run for re-election and will leave Congress at the end of the year. Shuster has been the foremost proponent for splitting off US ATC from FAA, but his legislative efforts have failed each of the last two years as even key members of his own party declined to back the proposal. 

Will Shuster make one more ATC reform push during the upcoming FAA reauthorization debate or instead focus his attention on infrastructure legislation, the issue he emphasized in his congressional retirement announcement? And where will Elwell stand on separating ATC from FAA? Trump, after all, has backed Shuster’s plan.

Proponents of the separation of ATC from FAA believe it would speed up FAA’s NextGen air traffic management modernization program, which aims to transition the US to a satellite-based ATC system. Elwell has long been a believer in NextGen, which he will have to keep moving forward even as the so-called ATC privatization debate continues.

NextGen did make progress in several areas under Huerta, including the installation of Data Comm—enabling voiceless communication between pilots and controllers—at airports across the US. However, US air traffic controllers continue to use paper flight strips, and airlines have complained NextGen implementation is progressing too slowly. Huerta was generally reluctant to wade into the debate over whether ATC should be spun off from FAA. 

Regardless of the outcome of the ATC discussion, Elwell will likely echo his predecessor in pushing for Congress to reauthorize and fund FAA in a more predictable fashion. Huerta repeatedly expressed frustration on that score, lamenting that FAA and airports across the US could not properly plan for the future because of Congress’ tendency to pass temporary extensions of FAA’s authority rather than full, long-term reauthorizations. 

There were no fatal crashes involving US passenger airlines during Huerta’s five-year tenure, and Elwell is expected to reiterate Huerta’s stance on reforming FAA’s safety oversight to make it more predictive than reactive. Huerta championed an FAA rule requiring all US commercial airlines to establish a safety management system (SMS), which uses data analysis to identify safety risks, by 2018. Elwell will have to oversee airlines’ compliance with the SMS rule this year. 

Huerta strongly believed FAA was better off moving away from a punitive approach to safety. “We don’t want operators who might inadvertently make a mistake to hide it because they have a fear of being punished,” he explained. “If there is a failing, whether human or mechanical, we need to know about it, to learn from it and make the changes necessary to prevent it from happening again.”

Elwell will also have to take the baton from Huerta on the thorny issue of integrating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into US airspace. Huerta believed drones had valuable uses and the technology’s development should be encouraged, but he worked to mitigate safety issues. A study commissioned by FAA released late last year concluded that UAV collisions with aircraft would cause more impact damage than a bird strike of equivalent size and speed, a finding with which Elwell will have to contend.