Bloomberg News

U.S. FAA Chief Goes on Leave After Drunk-Driving Arrest

December 07, 2011

(Updates with Mica comments, FAA employee policies on alcohol use starting in fourth paragraph.)

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt has taken a leave of absence and his employment status is under review after he was charged with driving while intoxicated Dec. 3, the U.S. Department of Transportation said.

Babbitt, 65, was arrested in a Washington suburb after being spotted driving on the wrong side of the road, police in Fairfax, Virginia, said in a statement.

Transportation Department officials and President Barack Obama learned of Babbitt’s arrest today, according to the department’s statement and Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. Carney, at his daily briefing with reporters, declined to say whether Obama would seek Babbitt’s resignation.

“I’m just devastated,” Representative John Mica, the Florida Republican who’s chairman of the House transportation committee, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve worked with him. He’s one of the best people the administration has had. He has to be held responsible but by the same token, he’s a valuable and competent administrator.”

The leave “couldn’t come at a worse time” with the House and Senate trying to agree on long-term legislation to fund the FAA, Mica said.

Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta, who has been in his role since June 2010, will serve as acting FAA leader, the Transportation Department said.

Alcohol Infractions

The arrest occurred on a four-lane street less than 10 miles from Babbitt’s home in Reston, Virginia, the police statement said.

Police “determined that he was under the influence of alcohol,” the statement said. It did not say what Babbitt’s blood-alcohol content was. Babbitt was alone at the time of the arrest and “cooperated fully” with police, it said.

As FAA administrator, Babbitt is in charge of recommending disciplinary action against air-traffic controllers accused of abusing alcohol or drugs.

Controllers who have a blood-alcohol content above 0.04 percent, or half the legal limit for driving in most states, when tested at work face termination, according to a table of FAA penalties.

A Bloomberg review earlier this year found that the agency didn’t carry out proposed terminations of controllers in two- thirds of cases since October 2009 involving drug or alcohol violations. Most employees were allowed to seek rehabilitation if there were no additional violations, or they accepted a lesser penalty, according to FAA data.

Licensed airline pilots must notify the FAA within 60 days if they are convicted of a drunk-driving offense, according to the agency’s website. Babbitt has a current airline transport pilot’s license, according to the FAA’s pilot database.

Sleeping Controllers

Babbitt’s tenure has been marked by smoother labor relations with air-traffic controllers and proposals to improve safety that have been opposed by the airline industry.

Earlier this year, nine air-traffic controllers were reported to have fallen asleep or been unresponsive to radio calls in a series of incidents at FAA facilities.

Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last year proposed that airline pilot shifts be restricted to prevent fatigue. The regulation has been opposed by airlines, which say it isn’t needed and will be too expensive.

Babbitt was a pilot at the now-defunct Eastern Airlines Inc., where he flew for 25 years, according to his FAA biography. He became president of the Air Line Pilots Association union, the largest pilot union in the U.S.

He was nominated by Obama for a five-year term as FAA administrator and sworn in on June 1, 2009.

--With assistance from Margaret Talev and Julie Bykowicz in Washington. Editors: Bernard Kohn, Andrea Snyder

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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