Steve Dickson at a Senate commerce committee hearing for confirmation of his nomination as FAA administrator.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Former Delta exec faces questioning for confirmation as FAA head

Former Delta Air Lines executive Steve Dickson told U.S. senators on Wednesday that if confirmed to lead the Federal Aviation Administration he will investigate whether regulators could have done more to prevent two fatal crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets.

Dickson, who was senior vice president of flight operations at Atlanta-based Delta until his retirement last October, answered with few specifics. But, under questioning from senators, he pledged to look into issues, ranging from the FAA’s “delegation” of some of its oversight to the companies it regulates to pilots’ manual flying skills when automation fails. The hearing in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation came after President Donald Trump in March announced the nomination of Dickson to a five-year term as FAA Administrator.

Senators praised Dickson’s extensive experience in aviation, but also asked pointed questions about how he will tackle the challenges the FAA faces. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Dickson at the hearing that Boeing and the FAA face “a crisis of confidence” after the crashes that left 346 people dead.

With his wife and family members sitting in the row of chairs behind him, Dickson — who was also a former F-15 fighter pilot and commercial airline pilot — answered with calm, measured responses.

A Southwest Boeing 737 Max 8 enroute from Tampa prepares to land at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on March 11, 2019. The FAA is facing questions about whether it failed to properly oversee Boeing after two of the planes crashed, killing all aboard. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Sen. Ted Cruz questioned Dickson on a Wall Street Journal article on an internal FAA review that he said “suggests a serious breakdown in the certification process,” asking what should be done to fix it.

From the outside “it’s hard to tell exactly when some of these things happened,” Dickson said. “If I am confirmed I will be looking into this,” he said.

His long history as a Delta executive has prompted some to question what he would do to address criticism that the FAA has a too-cozy relationship with airlines and aircraft manufacturers and that it has abdicated some of its responsibilities.

“Dickson has been on the other side of that relationship with the FAA for so long; it is hard not to imagine a stakeholder like Delta at times considering FAA oversight unnecessary, an inconvenience, or worse,” a group representing families of those who died in the 2009 Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, N.Y. said in a written statement. “Every passenger in this country is counting on him being able to put aside those past relationships and provide the leadership necessary to allow the FAA and its inspectors to make those hard calls for safety; the ungrounding of the 737 Max will be a prime test of this challenge.”

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill a U.S. House aviation subcommittee on Wednesday held a separate hearing questioning the FAA’s acting administrator Dan Elwell and National Transportation Safety Board chair Robert Sumwalt about the problems with the Boeing 737 Max.

At Dickson’s hearing, Cruz said: “The easiest thing to do will be to do nothing. Bureaucratic inertia is powerful, and the natural instincts of any agency is protect itself, protect the status quo and admit no wrongdoing.” He added that he wanted Dickson to “be pissed off that 346 people died.”

Dickson responded: “If I am confirmed, I promise you: I’m going to be the captain of the ship. I’ll be a steady hand on the tiller, which I think is what the American public needs. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be asking the tough questions and making the changes that need to be made.”

Steve Dickson, while an executive at Delta Air Lines. Source: Delta.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Committee chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Dickson’s “deliberate approach to all of these issues will serve us well.”

The committee is not expected to vote on the confirmation for a few weeks, after which it would go to a vote of the full Senate. Senators on the committee will submit more questions to Dickson in writing for responses by May 29.

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