US aviation boss on leave over drunk driving arrest

WASHINGTON Tue Dec 6, 2011 5:50am EST

Federal Aviation Administration head Randy Babbitt is seen in this Fairfax County Sheriff's booking photograph released to Reuters on December 5, 2011. REUTERS/Fairfax County Sheriff's Office/Handout

Federal Aviation Administration head Randy Babbitt is seen in this Fairfax County Sheriff's booking photograph released to Reuters on December 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Fairfax County Sheriff's Office/Handout

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. aviation safety official, Randy Babbitt, took an immediate leave of absence on Monday after he was arrested on a drunk driving charge over the weekend, officials said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said transportation officials and lawyers were discussing the status of Babbitt's employment.

Babbitt, who is in the middle of a five-year term as FAA administrator and asked to take leave, will be replaced by his deputy, Michael Huerta.

As FAA chief, Babbitt oversees more than 40,000 people and is responsible for the U.S. air traffic system and regulations governing aircraft and crew safety.

Babbitt, 65, was pulled over on Saturday night in Fairfax, Virginia, outside Washington for driving on the wrong side of the road, a police statement said.

He was alone in the car and there was no accident. He was charged with driving while intoxicated and cooperated with authorities, police said.

It was Babbitt's second driving offense in Fairfax in five years. He was convicted of reckless driving for speeding in 2006 and paid a $500 fine, court records show.

President Barack Obama was informed of the matter but the White House referred reporters to the Transportation Department for comment.

Babbitt was a pilot for Eastern Airlines for 25 years and a founding member of the Air Line Pilots Association union.

His biggest challenge since taking office in 2009 was managing the fallout last year from disclosures of air controllers sleeping on the job. The FAA's air traffic chief resigned over the controversy.

Babbitt also eased tensions between FAA management and controllers, and has pushed rules to combat pilot fatigue that are vehemently opposed by airlines. But the FAA has struggled under Babbitt to push through its top legislative priority - modernizing the nation's air traffic network.

Babbitt's boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, has invested agency capital in improving highway safety. LaHood spoke at an event last month with safety advocates, calling drunk driving "the deadliest epidemic" on U.S. roads.

If Babbitt were to leave, there is no clear successor beyond Huerta, who as deputy runs the agency's day-to-day operations. Another former pilot and ALPA president, Duane Woerth, was considered for the top FAA job along with Babbitt.

But Woerth is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for aviation policy. (Reporting by John Crawley; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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