By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump is considering his longtime personal pilot, John Dunkin, as a candidate to lead the Federal Aviation Administration among a small group of candidates, two administration officials briefed on the matter told Reuters Monday.
Other candidates to head the agency that oversees U.S. airspace and handles more than 15 million flights a year, are the acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell, Representative Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican and an unnamed aviation industry official, the people said on condition of anonymity because a decision has not been made.
In March last year Trump proposed handing over control of U.S. air traffic control to a privately-operated board, but he has faced resistance among many in Congress and owners of private planes. Congress opted in September to extend the current FAA authorization through the end of March and did not change the status of air traffic control.
Dunkin piloted Trump's private fleet during the 2016 campaign, including his luxurious $100 million Boeing 757, but as president Trump only flies aboard military planes. A Smithsonian documentary said Dunkin has been Trump's personal pilot "on and off" since 1989. Dunkin said in the documentary he was the son of a military pilot.
Axios reported Dunkin's name as a potential FAA nominee earlier and quoted an unnamed administration official as saying Dunkin had "managed airline and corporate flight departments, certified airlines from start-up under FAA regulations, and oversaw the Trump presidential campaign’s air fleet."
Senior White House officials interviewed Dunkin and other candidates, the officials said.
Dunkin did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. The White House declined comment.
The FAA administrator oversees a $16.4 billion-dollar budget and an agency with more than 47,000 employees. Elwell was previously senior vice president for safety, security, and operations at Airlines for America, an industry group and has also been a commercial pilot at American Airlines.
The FAA is part of a Trump administration effort to expand testing of drones to include flights over people, nighttime operations and flights out of sight of the operator. The White House and the FAA in October announced a test program to speed up the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace system and to test drone detection and tracking while waiving some limits on their use.
In a meeting with aviation executives in February 2017, Trump cited Dunkin in discussing air traffic control reforms.
"I have a pilot who’s a real expert, and he said, sir, the equipment they’re putting on is just the wrong stuff. And we’ll talk about that. Because if we’re going to modernize our systems, we should be using the right equipment," Trump said.
"My pilot, he’s a smart guy, and knows what’s going on. He said the government is using the wrong equipment and instituting a massive, multibillion-dollar project, but they’re using the wrong type of equipment."
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Frances Kerry)