By Alan Levin, Ari Natter and Ryan Beene / Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — If President Donald Trump is seeking loyalty from whomever he appoints to oversee the nation’s aviation system, his personal pilot fits the bill.
“The biggest part of my job is to make sure that everything happens seamlessly behind the scenes for Mr. Trump,” pilot John Dunkin said in a 2013 Smithsonian Channel documentary about the then-private citizen’s Boeing Co. 757 with its gold-plated trappings. “So we might be scrambling, but when Mr. Trump shows up, he just steps on the aircraft and be off to his destination.”
Dunkin, whom Trump has talked up at White House meetings, is among a small group being considered for chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, according to three people familiar with the discussions who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak.
Some senior lawmakers have questioned whether he’s qualified to run an agency with more than 45,000 employees and a budget of more than $16 billion. Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who is chairman of the committee that would have to approve the nomination, is one.
“There are other people that I think he is vetting that I’m aware of who have backgrounds that will be very suitable and fitting in that position,” Thune said. “I just don’t know enough about this individual to know if he fits that bill.”
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the senior Democrat on the same panel, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, signaled he’s skeptical of Dunkin. “I want an FAA administrator that’s really well experienced and qualified as an administrator — that’s the title,” Nelson said in an interview.
It wasn’t clear this week how seriously Trump’s favorite aviator was being considered. One administration official said there were some doubts about his qualifications for the post. There is no indication that the White House is planning to announce its choice immediately, according to the people.
Among the other candidates are the current acting head of FAA, Daniel Elwell, a former Air Force pilot who served at the agency from 2006-2008; Robert Sturgell, a former Navy pilot who was acting FAA administrator from 2007-2009 and is now a senior vice president at Rockwell Collins Inc.; and Rep. Samuel Graves, a Missouri Republican who is vying to lead the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next year.
Dunkin has overseen Trump’s private aviation operations for more than two decades was also an executive at the short-lived Trump Shuttle airline. His name has been part of the Washington rumor mill for a year since Trump referred to him during a Feb. 9, 2017, meeting with airline and airport executives.
In a discussion about the FAA’s air-traffic system, which is in the midst of a decades-long upgrade known as NextGen, Trump said: “And I can tell you that a lot of the new equipment that’s ordered is obsolete the day they order it. And that’s according to people that know, including my pilot.”
Later, he said: “My pilot — he’s a smart guy and he knows what’s going on.” Trump also said the agency’s head should be a pilot after being told then-FAA Administrator Michael Huerta wasn’t one.
Dunkin said in the Smithsonian documentary that he’d started flying before he could drive. His father was a military flier and “once I had a chance to go solo I was hooked and I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
Trump bought now-defunct Eastern Airlines’ routes between Boston, New York and Washington and renamed it after himself. Trump Shuttle operated only a few years before it went bankrupt and was purchased in 1992. It eventually became part of USAir, which is now part of American Airlines Group Inc.
Dunkin had been a pilot at Eastern before moving to the Trump operation, according to people who know him. For most of the years since then, Dunkin was the person who made Trump’s private fleet run, from ensuring the gold fixtures sparkled to taking care that maintenance was performed.
When Trump announced he was running for president, Dunkin transformed the corporate flight department with five aircraft, including the 757, into a veritable airline, he wrote in an article for Professional Pilot Magazine.
Over almost two years, it flew more than 700 flight legs to more than 200 cities, he said. All of that was accomplished by adding just two fixed-wing pilots to the two that were already there, including Dunkin, he wrote.
“Candidates that run for president normally hire an entire airline but that is not how we roll,” he said.