WASHINGTON – 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 aviation.
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. 1 priority.
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 2010.
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 service."
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 aerospace technology.
"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 necessary."
(Editing by Karey Wutkowski and Andrew Hay)