UNITED STATES - MAY 15: Stephen Dickson, nominee to be administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Photo: Bill Clark
Photo: Bill Clark

Senate committee votes for former Delta exec’s nomination as FAA chief

Sully Sullenberger among those who oppose nomination

A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday voted to advance the nomination of former Delta Air Lines executive Steve Dickson’s nomination as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Senate commerce committee Democrats opposed President Trump’s nominee, citing the Atlanta-based Delta’s treatment of a pilot who raised safety concerns while Dickson was senior vice president of flight operations. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who gained nationwide fame after safely landing a U.S. Airways flight on the Hudson River, also came out against Dickson’s nomination on the eve of the vote.

“The nominee, while a senior executive at Delta Air Lines, either caused or allowed a whistleblower with validated safety concerns to be retaliated against,” Sullenberger said in a written statement.

Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, who safely piloted U.S. Airways Flight 1549 with155 passengers and crew to a water landing 5 years ago, said he opposes President Trump’s nominee for the FAA. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Photo: Bebeto Matthews

“I strongly oppose his nomination. The decisions the next FAA Administrator makes will determine how safe every airline passenger and crew will be.”

Delta grounded pilot Karlene Petitt in 2016 soon after she raised concerns about the company’s approach to managing safety risk.

The airline 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 — after being grounded for more than a year and a half.

She filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which ruled in 2018 that there was insufficient evidence to determine a violation occurred. Petitt has appealed and a ruling is expected next year.

Senate commerce committee chair Roger Wicker said the committee reviewed the matter and “studied hundreds of pages of legal documents.”

“It is clear that Mr. Dickson was not a named party in any of these matters” and was not personally accused of retaliation, according to Wicker. He said Dickson was chosen for the position based on his qualifications including 40 years in the U.S. Air Force and the airline industry and said he will bring “commitment, experience and expertise necessary to lead the FAA and fulfill its mission.”

The ranking Democratic member on the Senate commerce committee, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called Petitt a whistleblower who “brought numerous concerns to the forefront of the Delta organization.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., voted against former Delta executive Steve Dickson to be the head of the FAA. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Then, “this pilot was retaliated against. And I don’t mean a general retaliation. I mean an absurd retaliation,” Cantwell said. She said it was clear “that Mr. Dickson did know” what was happening and did not disclose it to the committee.

Petitt as a Washington state resident is one of Cantwell’s constituents.

The Senate committee voted along party lines 14-to-12 in favor of Dickson’s nomination.

If confirmed by the full Senate, Dickson would be taking the helm of the FAA as the agency faces significant concerns about how it executes its core job of aviation safety oversight. Fatal crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets prompted the grounding of the Max fleet earlier this year and raised questions about whether the FAA is too cozy with aircraft manufacturers and airlines while regulating aviation safety.

“We’re entering an era of aviation where automation and pilot training need to have further scrutiny” and more transparency, Cantwell said in opposition to Dickson’s nomination.

In his statement, Sullenberger also cited the review of the safety of the 737 Max as a reason “it is critically important that we have an FAA Administrator who will act with integrity and independence.”

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