WASHINGTON Jan 11 When Michael Huerta joined
the Federal Aviation Administration as its second-in-command in
2010, grumbles spread through the industry: This was a career
transportation official but an outsider to the aerospace world.
Now, Huerta is at the helm of the FAA and has been thrust
into a very public review of what is seen as the future of
Huerta's FAA is heading up a wide-ranging review of the
Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a carbon-fiber marvel that has been
bedeviled in the past week by incidents including a battery
fire, an oil leak, a wiring problem, brake problems, and a
cracked cockpit window.
U.S. transportation officials and Boeing say the plane is
safe to fly but that they need to take a comprehensive look to
ensure there aren't flaws that should be remedied.
The review is a test of Boeing's bet on technological
advancements in flight and a test of the FAA's certification
process, which deemed the 787 good-to-go in August 2011 after
some eight years of review.
But it's also a personal test for Huerta: Will this aviation
outsider be able to strike the right balance between fostering
innovation in the skies and ensuring that safety remains the No.
Huerta's public transportation career started in the 1980s
when he was commissioner of New York City's Department of Ports,
International Trade and Commerce.
He then became executive director of the Port of San
Francisco, before serving a series of senior positions at the
U.S. Transportation Department in the 1990s.
After a stint in the private sector and a turn as managing
director of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Huerta returned to
government and became the FAA's deputy administrator in June
Huerta unexpectedly rose to the top of the FAA in December
2011 after then-head Randy Babbitt resigned because of a
drunk-driving charge that was later dismissed.
In another unexpected turn, Huerta had to help anchor a
press conference on the Boeing snafus, just two days after
officially being sworn in to head the FAA this week.
Huerta made a point of discussing the 787's contribution to
innovation, calling its technology "the future for aviation."
"The Dreamliner is a technologically very advanced plane,"
Huerta said at Friday's press conference. "I believe this
aircraft is safe, and what we're seeing are issues associated
with bringing any new technologically advanced product into
While those comments may be soothing overtures to industry,
experts said Huerta will also have to reassure any critics of
the FAA's ability to deliver on its commitment to safety.
"The FAA's reputation is on the line here, too, because they
did certify the airplane," said Leeham Co aerospace analyst
Scott Hamilton. "The FAA is as deep in this as Boeing."
While some industry insiders were initially wary of Huerta's
aerospace chops, he has since won over skeptics, in part by his
ability to foster agreement among divergent groups and by deftly
taking over the FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System.
The multibillion-dollar high-tech program, dubbed NextGen,
is a shift of the U.S. National Airspace System from using
radar-based systems for ground-based air traffic control to
satellite-based ones, or GPS.
Sarah McLeod, executive director of Aeronautical Repair
Station Association, a trade group that represents aviation
maintenance and manufacturing companies, said Huerta's
technological savvy impressed her.
"When you meet him -- I spent my 45 minutes with him -- his
ability to absorb information was pretty incredible. ... I
thought for being an outsider to aviation, this guy was really
sharp. There wasn't any mistake why he was appointed."
That sharpness will now be called on, as the FAA takes on a
complex review whose outcome could have far-reaching
implications for companies' investments in cutting-edge
"We're bringing technical experts together and what we want
to develop is data," Huerta said at the press conference. "Based
on what we learn we will take whatever appropriate action is