FAA chief Steve Dickson resigns to return to Atlanta

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson testifies before a Senate panel examining safety certification of jetliners on June 17, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Graeme Jennings/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: Getty Images

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Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson testifies before a Senate panel examining safety certification of jetliners on June 17, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Graeme Jennings/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: Getty Images

The former Delta executive will leave the agency after completing half of his five-year term.

Federal Aviation Administrator Steve Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines executive, is stepping down from the agency to return to Atlanta.

Dickson was nominated for the position by President Donald Trump in 2019. He took the reins of the FAA at one of the most tumultuous times in its history. The agency was facing harsh criticism, for being too lenient in its safety oversight role, after two Boeing 737 Max planes crashed, killing a total of 346 people.

In recent weeks, Dickson, 64, has been dealing with another controversy: The expansion of 5G near airports, a safety concern. Both the FAA and Federal Communications Commission have come under fire for not communicating effectively with each other.

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Dickson and other aviation officials were grilled on the 5G debacle during a four-and-a-half hour long Congressional hearing earlier this month.

In a memo to FAA employees, Dickson said he is stepping down on March 31 — about halfway through his five-year term. “It is time to go home,” he wrote.

Dickson’s family remained in Atlanta while he worked in Washington, D.C. “After sometimes long and unavoidable periods of separation from my loved ones during the pandemic, it is time to devote my full time and attention to them,” he wrote.

Before taking the helm of the FAA, Dickson worked for Delta and retired in October 2018 as senior vice president of flight operations.

A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a former F-15 fighter pilot, Dickson started at Delta as a pilot in 1991 and rose through the ranks at the airline.

His confirmation as FAA chief was clouded by a controversy surrounding the treatment of a Delta pilot who had raised safety concerns during Dickson’s tenure overseeing the airline’s pilots.

Delta grounded the pilot, Karlene Petitt, in 2016 after she raised questions about the company’s approach to managing safety risk. The company also referred her to a company doctor, who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. Subsequent diagnoses determined she did not suffer from bipolar disorder, and she eventually returned to flying for Delta. A U.S. Department of Labor judge later ruled that Delta had discriminated against Petitt.

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In spite of the Petitt controversy, the Republican-led Senate of 2019 confirmed Dickson along party lines, 52-40.

Dickson this week garnered praise from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who called him “the FAA’s steady and skilled captain” and said his tenure “has been marked by steadfast commitment to the FAA’ safety mission” and its employees.

Dickson in his memo said the FAA has overcome “some of the toughest challenges the agency and the aerospace sector have ever faced.”

“All I ever wanted growing up was to serve my country as an aviator, and to think I got the chance to live out that dream is nothing short of amazing,” he wrote.