WASHINGTON – FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt was placed on a leave of absence Monday as Department of Transportation officials decide how to handle Babbitt's weekend arrest on charges of drunken driving in suburban northern Virginia.
DOT officials are in "discussions with legal counsel about Administrator Babbitt's employment status," said a statement released by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's office Monday afternoon.
The Federal Aviation Administration is part of the Transportation Department. Babbitt is about halfway through a five-year term.
Babbitt, 65, was charged with driving while intoxicated after a patrol officer spotted him driving on the wrong side of the street and pulled him over about 10:30 p.m. EST Saturday in Fairfax City, Va., police in the Washington, D.C., suburb said.
Babbitt, who lives in nearby Reston, Va., was the only occupant in the vehicle, the statement said. Police said he cooperated and was released on his own recognizance.
Babbitt apparently delayed telling administration officials about the arrest. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama and Transportation Department officials learned of the arrest Monday afternoon, about an hour before a 1:30 p.m. EST statement was released saying Babbitt had been placed on leave at his request.
Separately, Fairfax City police issued a statement on the arrest to the media at about noon Monday. 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 crack down 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 cell phone use, and parents who fail to buckle in their children — than any previous transportation secretary.
Deputy FAA Administrator Michael Huerta will serve as acting administrator, the DOT statement said. 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.
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, which has nearly 40,000 employees. He was a pilot for the now-defunct Eastern Airlines for 25 years, and had served as president of the Air Line Pilots Association. As head of ALPA in 1990s, he championed the "one level of safety" initiative implemented in 1995 to improve safety standards across the airline industry.
Babbitt's nomination in 2009 was warmly received by both industry officials and airline unions. His easy manner and insider's knowledge of the airline industry generated respect in Congress, where he regularly testified on safety issues and in support of NextGen.
Babbitt took over at the FAA when the agency was still reeling from the exposure of widespread safety gaps in the regional airline industry. The problems were revealed by a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the February 2009 crash of a regional airliner near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people.
Babbitt and LaHood promised to immediately implement a series of safety initiatives. At Babbitt's urging airlines adopted a series of voluntary safety measures. But safety advocates say voluntary measures aren't enough. The FAA under Babbitt has also initiated several efforts to craft major new safety regulations, ranging from preventing pilot fatigue to boosting experience levels and training of airline pilots.
But several of those efforts have stalled as industry opponents lobbied White House officials against the proposed regulations, saying they would cost too much or be too burdensome.
The biggest crisis of Babbitt's FAA tenure occurred last spring when nine air traffic controllers were allegedly caught sleeping on the job or where unresponsive to radio calls while on duty over a period of several weeks. The head of FAA's Air Traffic Organization was forced to resign during the ensuing uproar.
As FAA's top official, Babbitt has the final say in disciplinary proceedings involving controllers who violate the agency's drug and alcohol regulations.
Barakat reported from Fairfax, Va.