Senate panel advances FAA nominee over Democrats' objections
A Senate committee advanced former Delta Air Lines executive Steve Dickson’s nomination to head the troubled Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday, dismissing Democrats' concerns about the airline's response to a whistleblower's safety warnings under his leadership.
The party-line vote of 14-12 sets up final approval in the full Senate for Dickson, who would oversee the agency's efforts to return the grounded Boeing 737 MAX back to service after 346 people died in two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
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Democrats have homed in on a complaint by a Delta pilot that the carrier retaliated against her after she aired concerns about safety. Dickson was one of the Delta executives she told about her concerns.
The pilot, Karlene Petitt, was later grounded and referred for a psychiatric exam in which she was wrongly diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Dickson didn’t put Petitt under medical review himself, but he has said he allowed it to proceed and that he still believes it was the right decision based on a report about Petitt’s behavior.
Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) defended Dickson during a markup Wednesday, and said the committee conducted an extensive review of the issue and dug into hundreds of pages of legal documents.
“It’s clear that Mr. Dickson was not a named party in any of these matters and was not personally alleged to have retaliated against any of his fellow employees who raised safety concerns,” Wicker said. Dickson's answers to questions from the committee, he added, show that "his commitments to safety and protection of employees who report concerns ... are paramount.”
Wicker added that it’s “vital to have … a Senate-confirmed administrator at the helm of the FAA at this crucial time for the agency.”
Wicker said after the markup that he planned to consult with Senate leadership on the timing of a floor vote.
“We need someone at the helm soon,” he said. “I think he can be confirmed without a battle royale."
The FAA has not had a confirmed administrator since early 2018. Before nominating Dickson, President Donald Trump considered giving the nod to John Dunkin, who had been Trump’s personal pilot. In the meantime, deputy administrator Dan Elwell has been acting as the agency’s top official.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the committee, said during the markup that Petitt suffered “absurd retaliation,” and it’s “very clear that Mr. Dickson did know, was involved with this pilot.”
“As the committee has searched for more information from Mr. Dickson on this, he has made it clear he thinks that the handling of this situation was just fine,” Cantwell said.
She noted that some of Petitt’s concerns were related to automation and pilot training — issues that are increasingly relevant given the probes into the 737 MAX crashes.
Dickson, who retired last year as Delta’s senior vice president of flight operations, didn’t report Petitt’s Labor Department case in a questionnaire he filled out for the Commerce Committee during the nomination process.
His nomination has also drawn protest from "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.
Sullenberger said in an interview with POLITICO that the Petitt case showed Dickson as someone who "looks upon those who bring critical safety information to his attention as being a nuisance and not a critical source of information."
Sullenberger said that the FAA’s ongoing oversight of the 737 MAX’s safety after the two crashes also raises questions about whether Dickson is the right person for the job.
"That’s one of the the most important issues, one of the most important reasons why I so strongly oppose his nomination is because his words and actions indicate to me that he is not going to be able to [or be] willing to make the hard choices," Sullenberger said.
A former Obama DOT official noted that the "safety culture" at the FAA is rooted in the "principle of non-retribution for reporting safety issues."
“I think what’s at stake is that trust in this system, that’s been built up over 20-plus years, could be lost or degraded," the official said. "It doesn’t take much to have a chilling effect on the safety culture."
But Ray LaHood, a Republican who was Transportation secretary during the Obama administration, said he believed Dickson was well-qualified for the FAA post.
"I think he should be confirmed, and I think he’ll do a great job,” he said. “The FAA deserves to have an administrator, full time, confirmed by the Senate who can get in there and really get the job done. That vacancy has been vacant for far too long.”
Earlier this week, Senate Democrats circulated a document stating that when Delta selected the psychiatrist to evaluate Petitt, he was already under investigation for allegedly threatening retaliation against another potential whistleblower. And it said his judgment that Petitt suffered from bipolar disorder was partly based on his reasoning that “no woman could care for three children under the age of three, go to night school and assist with her husband’s business without being manic.”
Separately, a former Delta pilot, Karl Seuring, has alleged he was fired during Dickson's tenure after he lodged safety concerns about work Delta’s maintenance organization did on a plane operated by Chile's military. While Dickson was deposed in Petitt’s case, he wasn’t in Seuring’s.
Delta has said that it does not tolerate retaliation against employees who flag safety concerns.
Following Wednesday's vote, the head of Airlines for America, Nicholas Calio, reiterated its stance that Dickson is "uniquely qualified" to lead the FAA. He also urged lawmakers to pass a waiver so Elwell can stay at the agency as deputy administrator after Dickson is confirmed. The waiver is necessary because both men are former military officers.
Tanya Snyder contributed to this report.