President Donald Trump tapped a former Delta Air Lines executive to lead the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday, a move that comes as the agency faces renewed scrutiny of its safety standards.
The White House said it planned to nominate Steve Dickson for a five-year term to lead the nation’s top aviation safety regulator, a position that requires Senate confirmation.
Dickson retired from Delta as senior vice president of flight operations in October after 27 years with the airline. His responsibilities there included overseeing flight operations and pilot training standards, staffing and scheduling.
A graduate of the Air Force Academy and Georgia State University’s College of Law, Dickson is a former F-15 fighter pilot. He also flew commercially for Delta, piloting Boeing 737 jets and other planes.
Dickson isn’t a stranger to the FAA. While at Delta, he served on committees advising the agency, including the NextGen Advisory Committee and the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee.
Delta issued a statement Tuesday calling Dickson “an admired and impactful leader who will serve the FAA and our country well.” The company said he “has the proven record and expertise to lead the efforts to improve our nation’s aviation system and ensure the safety and efficiency of our skies.”
The airline added, “We have no doubt that he will lead the FAA with the integrity and leadership that he has demonstrated throughout his career.”
The Atlantan’s nomination had been rumored for months. Trump was also reportedly eyeing his personal pilot for the role, a proposition that drew resistance from lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Dickson is the first senior airline executive to be appointed to lead the agency in roughly three decades, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The roughly 45,000-person agency has been led by an acting head since January 2018.
The FAA has recently faced a barrage of criticism about its safety standards and cozy relationship with airlines and aircraft manufacturers in the wake of two fatal crashes of Boeing 737 Max jetliners in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
Trump grounded the Max 8 and Max 9 planes last week.
Prior to that announcement, the FAA had stopped short of grounding the aircraft. It said its review showed “no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.”
Delta does not have Boeing’s Max 8 or Max 9 airplanes in its fleet. But Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, is among the U.S. airlines that fly the Boeing 737 Max 8.
In addition to investigating the recent 737 Max jetliner crashes, the FAA is also at the center of debates on new drone regulations and talks to overhaul the air traffic control system.
Dickson spoke out against a push to privatize the latter while at Delta. In 2016, he said separating air traffic control from the FAA would disrupt work on the modernization of the air traffic control system known as NextGen. He said at the time that such a move would be “reckless,” and he added: “We believe the more that is known of the details of this proposal, the more opposition it will face.”
The following year, after Trump said he’d push a plan to spin off air traffic control from the FAA, Delta softened its stance against privatization of the system. However, the effort seeking air traffic control privatization ended last year after failing to garner enough support.
Under Dickson’s leadership, Delta in 2009 reinstated a program for voluntary reporting of safety concerns. He said in a written statement then that such voluntary reporting programs “are critical to identifying, understanding and correcting safety events” and could help with “the systematic identification and resolution of potential hazards and human errors, with the full cooperation of all interested parties.”
Later, Dickson represented Delta’s position on contentious issues in labor negotiations with pilots.
Responding to Dickson’s nomination, the Air Line Pilots Association union said it “comes at a particularly critical time for the FAA, and it is our hope and expectation that the first order of business for him will be to reaffirm the agency’s steadfast commitment to safety.”
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association union said Dickson has been a “staunch advocate for aviation safety,” and the National Business Aviation Association, which represents corporate jet users, called his understanding of the national air transportation system and air traffic modernization “second to none.”
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