The sudden resignation of its chief leaves the Federal Aviation Administration in the hands of Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta, who's a well-regarded manager but lacks his predecessor's insider knowledge of the nation's airlines.
Randy Babbitt resigned Tuesday following his arrest over the weekend on charges of drunken driving. The former airline captain and pilot union leader had been FAA administrator since 2009. An appointee of President Barack Obama, he was about halfway through a five-year term.
Now Huerta will serve as acting administrator. Industry officials and lawmakers said they expect him to continue in the post through next year since the White House probably will want to avoid a possible nomination fight before the Nov. 6 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. Babbitt had placed Huerta over NextGen after a key technology acquisition program that underpins the effort ran into delays and cost overruns, and airline industry officials began to balk at the cost of adding expensive equipment that will be necessary to take advantage of the new system.
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.
There was concern that Babbitt's sudden departure could delay or jeopardize several important safety efforts under way at the FAA that are opposed by the airline industry.
"His departure creates a serious setback, leaving FAA in limbo at a critical time for the agency," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
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.
In a statement announcing his resignation, Babbitt expressed confidence in the ability of FAA officials to continue "the critical safety initiatives under way and the improvements" the agency has planned.
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.
"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."
Earlier Tuesday, LaHood said he told Babbitt he was "very disappointed" that he learned of the administrator's arrest from a news release issued by the Fairfax City police department. 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 long experience in the airline industry generated respect in Congress, as well as aviation circles.
Babbitt was a former airline captain and internationally recognized expert in aviation and labor relations when Obama tapped him 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 the pilots association, he championed the "one level of safety" initiative implemented in 1995 to improve safety standards across the airline industry.