The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on 10 July voted 14 to 12 along party lines to advance the nomination of Steve Dickson to be head of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), setting the course for a vote by the full Senate.
This narrow margin of approval reflects Senate skepticism about the nomination of Dickson, formerly senior-vice president of flight operations at Delta Air Lines. Among the votes against his nomination were Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington, ranking member on the committee, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.The Senate will be in recess from 5 August to 6 September, and no date has yet been set on a vote for Dickson's nomination.
Lawmakers including Blumenthal and Cantwell have scrutinised Dickson for alleged retaliation against a whistleblower while an executive at Delta. These lawmakers have expressed concern that his nomination questionnaire that asked about any involvement in lawsuits omitted mention of a lawsuit filed by the whistleblower, Delta pilot Karlene Petitt. She sued the airline for having to submit to psychiatric evaluations, claiming that was retaliation for making internal complaints at the airline about potential safety violations.
Dickson responded to the committee that he was not named as a party in the lawsuit and defended the decision for Petitt to undergo psychiatric evaluations.
"I have not previously and will never tolerate retaliation of any kind to any employee who raises safety concerns," Dickson said in written responses to the committee.
Whistleblower complaints in the aerospace sector and the potential retaliation against them have been a key part of the committee's investigation about US aviation safety following the deaths of 346 people in two crashes of Boeing 737 Max aircraft. Lawmakers pressed Dickson during his confirmation hearing in May to restore confidence in the FAA following the crashes that have galvanised bipartisan scrutiny of both Boeing and the agency.
Dickson during that hearing praised Dan Elwell for “strong leadership” as acting FAA administrator but said confirming a full-time, permanent head would help address concerns about the agency’s safety oversight.
Airlines for America president Nicholas Calio says in a statement that the trade organisation supports Dickson's nomination, calling him "uniquely qualified to provide the vision, leadership and experience needed to meet the challenges and significant opportunities ahead for the FAA”. Calio also called on lawmakers to consider bicameral passage of a waiver for Elwell to continue serving as deputy administrator of the FAA if Dickson were confirmed.
Voices opposing Dickson's nomination include retired airline pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who in 2009 averted a crash in New York during US Airways Flight 1549 that became known as "the Miracle on the Hudson".
"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 says in a statement.