Former Delta exec faces opposition to nomination for FAA administrator job

Steve Dickson at a Senate commerce committee hearing for confirmation of his nomination as FAA administrator.

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Steve Dickson at a Senate commerce committee hearing for confirmation of his nomination as FAA administrator.

Former Delta Air Lines executive Steve Dickson faces some opposition to his nomination for the job of heading the Federal Aviation Administration.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking Democratic member of the Senate commerce committee considering Dickson's nomination, said she will not support the nomination by President Donald Trump of the former senior vice president of flight operations at Atlanta-based Delta for the top job at the FAA.

Cantwell said in a written statement that Dickson's oversight of the company's response to a pilot who raised safety concerns "raises serious questions about his leadership."

The pilot, Karlene Petitt, alleged in a 2016 Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint against Delta that the airline grounded her and referred her for a psychiatric examination by a company doctor who then diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.

Subsequent medical examinations determined Petitt did not suffer from bipolar disorder, and she returned to flying for Delta. But she was grounded for more than a year and a half as a result of the dispute.

Dickson, who is not named as a party to the OSHA case but oversaw pilots while at Delta, said in a deposition that he decided moving forward with a medical review of Petitt "was a sound course of action."

Petitt’s attorney Lee Seham said he believes Delta “used psychiatric evaluation as an alternative to discipline.”

Cantwell on Friday expressed a “need to be absolutely certain that the person chosen to lead the FAA has a clean record on safety, and the ability to help restore the public’s trust in the FAA.”

“Unfortunately, information brought to our committee in recent weeks calls into question the safety culture that existed under Mr. Dickson that allowed a safety whistleblower to be retaliated against,” Cantwell said in her statement.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in written questions to Dickson, called the nominee’s failure to disclose the lawsuit to the Senate committee “deeply concerning and potentially disqualifying.”

The Senate commerce committee scheduled a July 10 session to consider legislation and nominations, including Dickson’s nomination to the FAA job. The comments from Cantwell and Blumenthal indicate hesitation among Democrats toward Dickson’s nomination.

White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere issued a statement saying Trump chose Dickson to head the FAA “because of his almost three decades of experience at Delta,” and added that the White House “has complete confidence in his nomination and expects him to be confirmed.”

Delta denied Petitt was referred for a medical assessment in retaliation for raising safety concerns. According to the airline, Petitt was referred for a medical evaluation after her behavior and statements raised questions about her fitness to fly.

According to a Delta executive’s testimony, the woman who interviewed Petitt for the internal investigation said Petitt “was quite emotional” and that she was concerned “that something would happen to her, that Flight Operations was out to get her.”

After the interview, Delta said it referred Petitt for a medical evaluation, and out of an abundance of caution followed its medical review process in its pilot contract. In the end, the process concluded she was fit to fly.

OSHA last year found there was insufficient evidence to determine a violation occurred. Petitt appealed. A ruling on her appeal isn’t expected until next year.

After media reports on Petitt’s OSHA case, the Senate committee put a hold on the process to confirm Dickson’s nomination.

Delta said it stands by its decision and said Petitt received pay and benefits while she was grounded.

Pilots' mental health has gained more attention since the 2015 crash of a Germanwings flight in which the co-pilot intentionally crashed a plane into the Alps. The co-pilot had been treated for suicidal tendencies and ruled unfit to work but kept the diagnosis secret.

“Our utmost responsibility is to provide safe and secure travel for our customers and our employees,” Delta said in a written statement, adding “we do not tolerate retaliation against employees who raise concerns.”

Cantwell said she met with Petitt, and said Dickson has responded to questions from the committee and that he “sought to minimize his role in this extremely troubling episode.”

“Given the urgent need for stronger safety culture and transparency throughout the FAA, these incidents do not paint the picture of the type of leadership that we need,” Cantwell said in her statement, adding that she will not support Dickson’s nomination.