President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the US Federal Aviation Administration says he would be vigilant to investigate how the agency can be improved and potential mistakes remedied in the wake of two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes.
Steve Dickson, formerly senior-vice president of flight operations at Delta Air Lines, faced questions on 15 May from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation about how he would restore confidence in the aviation sector.
Dickson praised Dan Elwell for “strong leadership” as acting FAA administrator but says confirming a full-time, permanent head would be a step toward finding and solving potential problems with the agency’s safety oversight.
The deaths of 346 people from the two 737 Max crashes galvanised bipartisan scrutiny of Boeing and the FAA.
Republican senator Ted Cruz tells Dickson, “What I’m asking you to do, if confirmed, is be pissed off that 346 people died”.
The committee’s chairman senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, is leading an investigation into whether FAA inspectors mandated enough training for pilots for the 737 Max flight control software, which can automatically trim the aircraft's nose down. The world’s 737 Max fleet remains grounded pending certification of a software update.
Wicker met with Dickson in one of several visits the nominee made in May to committee member offices. The chairman says in his opening remarks this is “an especially challenging time for the agency”.
“This committee will continue its oversight and hold the FAA accountable, but we also stand ready to work with the FAA on necessary reforms,” Wicker says.
Evidence suggests the pilots of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and Lion Air flight 610 — both 737 Max 8s — struggled unsuccessfully to counter the automated controls.
“It’s very important not to jump to conclusions,” Dickson says. “I will never certify an airplane that I wouldn’t put my family on.”
Democratic senator Richard Blumenethal pressed Dickson to return to the committee with the results of safety investigations before 737 Max aircraft can fly again.
When Blumenthal asked if he would be more open to sharing information from discussions with Trump and the White House about aviation safety issues Dickson says, “I will be as candid as I possibly can”.
Democratic senator Ed Markey of Connecticut says Dickson, if confirmed, should be vigilant to ensure that safety-related equipment not be offered as optional on aircraft for an extra fee.
News reports that Boeing charged airlines extra for safety systems to help pilots recognise false readings from sensors connected to the automated 737 Max flight control software spurred Markey to introduce legislation to prohibit companies from making safety features optional when selling to airlines.
“We need to look very carefully at what should be safety critical,” Dickson says in response to Markey’s concerns.
Preparing US airspace to integrate a new generation of unmanned aircraft and commercial supersonic jets are priorities Dickson says he would also carry out, along with other technology goals outlined in the FAA Reauthorisation Act of 2018.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association trade groups both published statements of support for Dickson ahead of his confirmation hearing.