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By Roman Jankowski*
“Secretary Pete” seems more focused on holiday leave than fixing issues with the Department of Transportation.
Things aren’t going to well for Pete Buttigieg on a number of fronts. As the secretary of transportation, he is also in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Wednesday morning, the FAA halted all outbound flights throughout the country because the Notice to Air Missions System, which provides information essential to flight operations personnel, stopped working, causing a grounding of all U.S. outbound flights for the first time since 9/11.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Buttigieg is focused on fixing the problem as quickly as possible. Around 10 a.m. Wednesday, amid the FAA crisis, the assistant transportation secretary for administration, Philip A. McNamara, sent an email to all DOT employees, which The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project obtained.
He wrote, “To begin the upcoming holiday weekend, we have approved a three-hour early release on Friday, January 13 for all DOT federal employees in work status, including telework/ Employees designated as essential may be required by their supervisor to remain on duty.”
After the last FAA administrator left, President Joe Biden nominated Phil Washington in June, but the Senate never confirmed him. The confirmation failed in part because Washington had been named in a criminal search warrant and connected to public corruption allegations.
Washington was renominated a week ago for the position. If confirmed, he will be able to hold the position for five years, unlike most political appointments, which end with the presidential term.
FAA Associate Administrator Billy Nolen has been acting in the capacity of the administrator for about eight months. A political appointee, he joined the Biden administration in his FAA role in January 2022. Before joining the Biden FAA, Nolen served as the vice president for safety, security, and quality for WestJet Airlines in Canada. Unfortunately, the FAA has been plagued by scandals during his acting tenure.
On April 21, 2022, a few weeks into Nolen’s acting role, the FAA forgot to notify the Secret Service, Park Police, and Capitol Police of a scheduled flyover and a parachute stunt into Nationals Park. The U.S. Army Golden Knights plane flew by the Capitol Complex, causing law enforcement to issue an alert and urgent evacuation of the Capitol Complex.
The FAA later issued an unsigned apology on April 22, 2022, stating, “We deeply regret that we contributed to a precautionary evacuation of the Capitol complex and apologize for the disruption and fear experienced by those who work there.”
Buttigieg himself faced criticism for using the FAA’s private fleet of jets over 18 times, most recently to do a radio interview in New York City. The Washington Post once reported that during the Trump administration, the FAA charged roughly $5,000 per hour to use the private jet fleet. The DOT tried to assure the public on this as well.
“Given that commercial air travel is usually the cheapest way for the Secretary and his staff to travel, 108 of the 126 flights for DOT trips he has taken have been on commercial airlines. However, there are some cases where it is more efficient and/or less expensive for the Secretary and accompanying personnel to fly on a 9-seater FAA plane rather than commercial flights,” a spokesperson said. “Use of the FAA plane in limited, specific cases has helped to maximize efficiency and save thousands of taxpayer dollars.”
The White House tried to explain the Wednesday flight crisis.
In a Twitter post, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said, “The President has been briefed by the Secretary of Transportation this morning on the FAA system outage. There is no evidence of a cyberattack at this point, but the president directed DOT to conduct a full investigation into the causes. The FAA will provide regular updates. Since no cause has been determined, it appears that the DOT should be all hands on deck to determine the issue and ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
I emailed McNamara a few questions regarding this statement. Below are the questions I asked.
It has come to my attention that you sent an all hands email today announcing an early holiday release for MLK day. Can you confirm?
Does the DOT normally release employees early before a Federal holiday?
Does Secretary Buttigieg prioritize Federal Holiday leave for his employees, regardless of the workload or emergencies at DOT?
He forwarded my questions to the press office, which responded to my email.
“Emergency and essential personnel will be working as mentioned in the notice,” a spokesperson said.
Providing three hours of leave was a gracious gift given by McNamara. After doing some quick research, I found out the average salary for a federal employee in the United States: $108,584.00 a year, which comes out to be $52.20 per hour if you figure in an average year an employee works 2,080 hours. Since there are 55,000 employees at DOT, as per the website, this gift amounts to $8,613,634.62. If this is a standard practice for federal holidays, how much tax dollars are going to this type of practice?
The FAA’s extra time off extended to federal employees working from home. Workers with no commute will receive the same time off.
Finally, it remains unclear just how many emergency and essential personnel will be working. Contrary to the DOT spokesperson’s email to me, the initial announcement about the time off says the decision will be up to supervisors, not applied across the board.
If the DOT focused more on solving issues and not on employee time off, maybe it wouldn’t have so many crises.
*Roman serves as a senior investigative counsel for the Oversight Project at The Heritage Foundation.
This article is part of an agreement between El American and The Heritage Foundation.