The U.S. Senate on Wednesday narrowly confirmed Atlantan Steve Dickson to lead the Federal Aviation Administration after the former Delta Air Lines executive weathered criticism about his handling of a whistleblower case.
Lawmakers voted along strict party lines, 52-40, in favor of Dickson leading the aviation safety agency for a five-year term.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell listed Dickson among many “impressive” Trump administration nominees on Wednesday, and Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue voted in favor of his confirmation.
“He is a capable leader with a proven ability to manage large organizations,” Perdue said. “At Delta, Captain Dickson worked to improve safety standards, and he is committed to ensuring aviation safety remains the FAA’s top priority.”
Every Democrat present voted to reject Dickson’s nomination.
Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson was not in Washington for the vote — he is still in recovery after breaking four ribs — but had previously voiced his support.
Dickson retired from Delta in October as senior vice president of flight operations after 27 years with the airline, where he oversaw flight operations, pilot training, standards, staffing and scheduling. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a former F-15 fighter pilot.
While at Delta, Dickson served on committees advising the FAA, including the NextGen Advisory Committee and the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee.
Dickson will take over the FAA during a tumultuous period for the agency in the wake of two fatal crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets. The FAA faces accusations of fostering too-cozy relationships with airlines and aircraft manufacturers, and Dickson will be responsible for taking the helm of the agency as it faces the challenge of bringing the 737 Max back into the air safely and regaining public trust.
The Max jets have been grounded since March, forcing Southwest, American and United Airlines to cancel flights. Atlanta-based Delta, however, does not fly the Max. It's unclear when the Max will be cleared to fly again, and The Wall Street Journal reported that the grounding could stretch into 2020.
Dickson will bring stable leadership to the FAA after the agency has gone more than 18 months under an interim administrator.
His nomination by President Donald Trump to helm the FAA appeared to be a sure thing until a controversy surfaced surrounding the treatment of a Delta pilot who raised safety concerns during Dickson's tenure as senior vice president overseeing Delta's 14,000 pilots.
Delta grounded the pilot, Karlene Petitt, in 2016 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 diagnosed her with bipolar disorder — though subsequent diagnoses determined she did not suffer from bipolar disorder, and she returned to flying for Delta after a year and a half.
Petitt filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which ruled there was insufficient evidence. She appealed, and a ruling is expected next year.
The Senate Commerce Committee investigated the issue, asking Dickson to respond to written questions from senators, and the committee voted 14-12 along party lines in favor of Dickson's nomination.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called Dickson "the wrong man for the FAA."
“We certainly can’t have organizations that threaten pilots with this kind of retaliation to actually stop them from flying, when in reality they are just reporting what they think are the needed improvements to a safety management system,” Cantwell said.
Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger, who piloted the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing, also opposed Dickson’s nomination.
Republican leaders ultimately stuck by Dickson.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Dickson’s response to the panel’s questions about the whistleblower case “demonstrate that he has commitments to safety and to the protection of employees who report concerns and that that is paramount, in his view.”
Delta in a written statement said Dickson “has the proven record and expertise to lead the efforts to improve our nation’s aviation system,” and it expressed “no doubt that he will lead the FAA with the integrity and leadership that he has demonstrated throughout his career.”
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