Former Delta Air Lines executive Stephen Dickson has been confirmed by the Senate as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Dickson, a U.S. Air Force veteran, recently retired as senior vice president of flight operations at Delta. He will serve a five-year term as FAA administrator.
Since January 2018, the FAA has been overseen by acting administrator Dan Elwell, who took over for former administrator Michael Huerta.
Elaine L. Chao, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, says, “With decades of experience in the airline industry overseeing flight operations and service to our country as a United States Air Force officer, Captain Dickson is highly qualified to lead the FAA. Safety is the department’s No. 1 priority, and he is committed to ensuring that the FAA’s safety culture, and safety record, continue to lead the world. I also want to thank deputy administrator Dan Elwell for his tremendous service leading the agency as acting administrator since January 2018.”
In a statement, the Small UAV Coalition also thanks Elwell for his leadership and looks forward to continuing to work with the FAA as it develops a regulatory framework for expanded commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations.
“Steve Dickson brings exceptional experience to the FAA as it continues to embark on a new era of aviation,” comments Gregory Walden, aviation counsel to the Small UAV Coalition and former FAA chief counsel. “Under his leadership, the FAA is equipped to set the global standard for safe, secure UAS integration.”
Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), says, “NBAA has had a close working relationship with Steve for many years, and we’re confident he’s the right man for the job. Having a permanent administrator at the FAA is key to ensuring the continued advancement of important work being done on aviation-system modernization, equipment certification, workforce development, safety and other top priorities.”
In conjunction with Dickson’s nomination, Bolen sent a letter on May 14 to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation commending his selection by the White House for FAA administrator (which was officially announced on March 19).
“The more than 45,000 FAA employees who work tirelessly to operate a safe and efficient aviation system deserve a leader with the proven management experience that Steve Dickson would bring each day,” the letter said.
When nominating Dickson for the position in March, the White House said that while at Delta, he was responsible for the safety and operational performance of Delta’s global flight operations, as well as pilot training, crew resources, crew scheduling and regulatory compliance. He also flew in line operations as an A320 captain and previously flew the B727, B737, B757 and B767 during his career.
“Captain Dickson is a strong advocate for commercial aviation safety and improvements to our National Airspace System, having served as chairman of several industry stakeholder groups and federal advisory committees,” the White House added. “A former United States Air Force officer and F-15 fighter pilot, Dickson is a distinguished graduate of the Class of 1979 at the United States Air Force Academy, as well as a graduate of the Georgia State University College of Law, magna cum laude.”
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, has issued the following statement on Dickson’s confirmation: “Mr. Dickson was chosen to lead the FAA because of his experience, impressive qualifications and commitment to ensure that safety is the agency’s top priority. I look forward to working with Mr. Dickson and expect his leadership will provide direction for the FAA at this crucial time.”
On the other hand, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, took to the Senate floor on Tuesday in opposition to Dickson’s nomination.
“I rise today to speak in opposition to the nomination of Stephen Dickson to be the next administrator of the FAA,” Cantwell said. “I have said that it is very important that in this day and age, when it comes to aviation, safety must always be our top priority. We’ve considered Mr. Dickson’s nomination, his record, an ongoing case of a whistleblower retaliation. And given all of that, it is clear to me he is not the right person for the safety culture that we need today at the FAA.”
A press release from Cantwell argues that Dickson played a role in in the alleged retaliation against First Officer Karlene Petitt, a Delta Air Lines pilot with over 40 years of flying experience. After raising safety concerns with Dickson and several other senior Delta executives, Petitt was sent to a company-selected doctor who incorrectly diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and grounded her from flying for 18 months – a move she alleges was related to her status as a whistleblower at Delta, the press release says.
The release claims that Dickson failed to disclose this episode to the Commerce Committee and later tried to minimize his role in the episode – but refused to acknowledge any error on his or Delta’s part in Petitt’s treatment.
According to Cantwell, Dickson’s nomination also has the “dubious distinction” of being the first FAA nominee to receive a party-line vote out of committee.
“It is distressing to me that Mr. Dickson advanced out of committee on just a party line vote,” the senator said. “We’ve never had a partisan vote on an FAA nominee in the past, and I believe that we should have found consensus on a nominee for the FAA, given all of the concerns the public has about flying safety.”
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger has also come out in opposition to Dickson’s nomination. On Twitter, the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot wrote, in part, on July 9, “This nominee, while a senior executive at Delta Air Lines, either caused or allowed a whistleblower with validated safety concerns to be retaliated against. I strongly oppose his nomination.”