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 his role in the handling of a whistleblower’s safety warnings at the airline.
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 who claims 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 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.”
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 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 drawn protest from “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who said he “strongly opposes” the nomination because of Dickson’s role in the Petitt case.
But Ray LaHood, a Republican who served as former President Barack Obama’s Transportation secretary, said he believed Dickson was well qualified for the FAA job.
“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 their and really get the job done. That vacancy has been vacant for far too long.”
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats circulated a document stating that the psychiatrist selected to evaluate Petitt was being investigated at the time for threatening retaliation against another potential whistleblower. And it said his judgment that she suffered from bipolar disorder was 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.”
Another Delta whistleblower, Karl Seuring, has alleged he was fired after three decades as a Delta pilot for lodging 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.