President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Federal Aviation Administration won approval from a Senate committee Wednesday despite objections from Democrats who questioned the actions of the former Delta Air Lines executive in a case involving a pilot who raised safety issues.
The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted 14-12 along party lines to send the nomination of Stephen Dickson to the full Senate, even though Democrats accused him of participating in retaliation against a whistleblower pilot who reported safety concerns to airline management.
If approved, Dickson also would head an agency that is investigating allegations that Delta failed to implement required safety procedures.
The FAA is also under intense scrutiny over its approval of the Boeing 737 Max airliner. Two of the planes crashed within the past year in Indonesia and Ethiopia, killing 346 people.
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, told members that Delta whistleblower pilot Karlene Petitt reported numerous concerns, including pilots relying too much on automation to fly.
In response, Delta ordered Petitt to undergo a psychiatric evaluation that declared her unfit to fly. That finding was later overturned by other psychiatrists.
Dickson, she said, failed to mention the case in committee testimony, but committee members later found documents showing that he played a role.
“It’s very clear that Mr. Dickson did know, was involved with this pilot, did know what was happening and failed to disclose it to this committee,” Cantwell said before urging colleagues to vote against the nomination. “We certainly can’t have organizations threaten pilots with this kind of retaliation.”
She called Delta’s discipline of Petit “an absurd retaliation,” and said she was sent to the psychiatrist “who then claimed just because she juggled marriage, children and being a pilot, that somehow she must be manic.” Petitt, was grounded for more than a year before independent psychiatrists declared her mentally fit.
But Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., praised Dickson’s long career as an Air Force pilot and Delta pilot and executive. At his hearing in May, Wicker said, Dickson “clearly demonstrated the experience and leadership abilities necessary to lead the FAA.”
Wicker said the committee conducted an “extensive review” after it learned of the whistleblower case and found that Dickson wasn’t named in any lawsuits or administrative proceedings, and was not accused of retaliating against employees who raised safety concerns. He said the committee studied hundreds of pages of legal documents.
“I believe Mr. Dickson is an excellent nominee for this position. I think he will bring commitment, experience and expertise necessary to lead the FAA and fulfill its mission,” he said.
The only other committee member who spoke was Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, who said Dickson is “simply the wrong person to head the FAA.” He suggested that his long tenure at Delta makes it impossible for him to be independent of the airline industry.
In a statement, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed a crippled airliner safely on the Hudson River in 2009, also opposed Dickson’s nomination. “Especially now with the safety of the 737 Max under review, it is critically important that we have an FAA Administrator who will act with integrity and independence to protect everyone who flies,” Sullenberger said.
Krisher reported from Detroit. Koenig reported from Dallas.