WASHINGTON — FAA administrator Randy Babbitt resigned Tuesday as head of the Federal Aviation Administration following his arrest over the weekend on charges of drunken driving.
Babbitt was about halfway through a five-year term. Deputy FAA Administrator Michael Huerta will serve as acting administrator. Industry officials and lawmakers said they expect Huerta to continue in the post through next year since the White House probably will want to avoid a possible nomination fight before the presidential election.
In recent months, Huerta has been leading the FAA's troubled NextGen effort to transition from an air traffic control system based on World War II-era radar technology to one based on satellite technology. Huerta was managing director of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and held several senior transportation department posts during former President Bill Clinton's administration.
Babbitt, 65, was arrested Saturday night in Fairfax City, Va., by a patrolman who said the nation's top aviation official was driving on the wrong side of the road.
Babbitt said in a statement that he had submitted his resignation to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and it had been accepted.
"I am unwilling to let anything cast a shadow on the outstanding work done 24 hours a day, seven days a week by my colleagues at the FAA," Babbitt said. "They run the finest and safest aviation system in the world and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work alongside them."
LaHood thanked Babbitt for his service, saying that under his stewardship the nation's aviation system "became safer and stronger."
Babbitt "worked tirelessly to improve relations with the labor community and bolstered employee engagement among his 49,000 colleagues at the FAA. He led the FAA's efforts to improve pilot training and enhance safety for the traveling public, as well as those that work in aviation," LaHood said in a statement.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Babbitt's departure "creates a serious setback, leaving FAA in limbo at a critical time for the agency."
Earlier in the day, LaHood told reporters he was disappointed to learn of Babbitt's arrest from a news release issued by the Fairfax City police department on Monday.
It is the police department's policy to disclose the arrests of public officials. Babbitt, who lives in nearby Reston, Va., was the only occupant in the vehicle, police said. He cooperated and was released on his own recognizance, they said. They refused to disclose the results of Babbitt's blood alcohol test. The legal limit is .08.
LaHood has aggressively campaigned against drunken driving and is working with police agencies and safety advocates on an annual holiday crackdown on drinking and driving later this month. Safety advocates credit LaHood with doing more to raise the visibility of human factors in highway safety – including drunken driving, drivers distracted by cellphone use and parents who fail to buckle in their children – than any previous transportation secretary.
Babbitt's easy manner, commitment to safety and insider's knowledge of the airline industry generated respect in Congress, where he regularly testified on safety issues and in support of NextGen.
There was concern Tuesday that Babbitt's sudden departure could delay or jeopardize several important safety efforts under way at the FAA that are strongly opposed by the airline industry. One effort involves crafting the first new regulations in decades governing pilot work schedules in an effort to prevent fatigue.
The National Transportation Safety Board has identified pilot fatigue as one of the airline industry's most pressing safety problems. Industry opponents lobbied White House officials against the proposed regulations, saying they would cost too much or be too burdensome.
Babbitt was a former airline captain and internationally recognized expert in aviation and labor relations when Obama tapped him in 2009 to head the FAA. He was a pilot for now-defunct Eastern Airlines for 25 years and had served as president of the Air Line Pilots Association in the 1990s. As head of pilots association, he championed the "one level of safety" initiative implemented in 1995 to improve safety standards across the airline industry.