Initially thought to be a shoo-in for the next FAA administrator, former Delta Air Lines executive Steve Dickson’s confirmation is hung up in the Senate amid concerns that he may have been involved in alleged retaliation against a whistleblower.
At issue is an ongoing lawsuit involving a Delta pilot who sued the airline after she had to submit to psychiatric evaluations. The suit claims these evaluations were retaliation for having submitted a memo to Dickson and another executive alleging safety violations at the airline. Dickson did not disclose his involvement in the suit in documentation submitted to the Senate Commerce Committee.
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Commerce Committee leaders are polling members to see how they want to proceed; Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said Monday that he has consulted with DOT and the White House on the issue.
When asked about Dickson’s chances for being confirmed Wednesday, Wicker tried to sound optimistic.
“Members are discussing this and beginning to formulate views, and I’m taking the pulse,” he said. “I think there’s maybe a way forward for Mr. Dickson.”
But senators are clearly becoming concerned.
Democrats had not expected to have any reason to challenge a nominee they agreed was highly qualified and non-ideological, but some are troubled by the new allegations.
“I am very concerned because it is about him authorizing retaliation against a whistleblower,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), noting that Dickson had not brought up the issue when she had met with him one-on-one before his hearing.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called Dickson’s “failure to disclose highly relevant information” about the case “deeply concerning and potentially disqualifying.”
“At best, his omission calls into serious question his judgment and commitment to transparency,” Blumenthal said. “This ongoing litigation and Dickson’s evasiveness make me unsure he is the person to increase safety oversight and right the ship at the FAA.”
Blumenthal wants Dickson to appear before Commerce again to respond to the allegations, potentially with Delta pilot Karlene Petitt also appearing.
Ranking Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington would only say, “I think people are still looking at information and data.”
Beyond the non-disclosure paperwork matter, the optics of the lawsuit’s specifics — a pilot alleging she was retaliated against for presenting safety problems to the man being considered for a job overseeing the safety of all aviation in the United States — are thorny at best.
The suit was brought by Petitt over being forced to submit to repeated psychiatric evaluations — the first of which diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, which subsequent evaluations refuted — and for being placed on paid leave for a year and a half.
The psychiatric referral came after Petitt reportedly became emotional when talking to human resources, after submitting a memo to Dickson and another Delta flight operations boss in which she alleged safety violations. The violations were related to flight and duty limitations and rest breaks, pressures for pilots to fly while fatigued, inadequate pilot training and other items. The FAA investigated and substantiated Petitt’s allegations, but it was another year before she was reinstated.
In his deposition in the Petitt case, Dickson said he was “ultimately responsible for everything that happens in flight operations” and that he had the authority to veto the decision to send Petitt for a psychiatric evaluation or require further investigation before doing so, but that he thought that the referral was a “sound course of action.”
Petitt’s suit against Delta is not yet settled. In a hearing last month, Administrative Law Judge Scott Morris said he was “really troubled” by the process by which Petitt was referred for psychiatric evaluation. He noted that he understands that Delta “has a hard decision to make, given the Germanwings scenario,” but suggested that Delta is “not going to like” his findings and appeared to advise the company to settle to avoid having his written decision on the record.
“You all have to make a business decision if you want all this laundry out there,” he said.
Stephanie Beasley contributed to this report.