Senate committee approves FAA nominee over Democrats objections

Stephen Dickson, President Trump's nominee to run the Federal Aviation Administration. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press/File
Stephen Dickson, President Trump's nominee to run the Federal Aviation Administration. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press/FileJ. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

President 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.

Democrats faulted Dickson for failing to disclose his involvement in the case of Karlene Petitt, a pilot who charges that Delta retaliated against her after she raised safety concerns to Dickson and other executives.

If approved, Dickson would head an agency that is investigating one of Petitt’s allegations, that Delta failed to implement required safety procedures.


Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, said Petitt reported several concerns to Delta, including pilots relying too much on automation to fly.

Delta ordered Petitt to undergo a psychiatric evaluation that declared her unfit to fly. That finding was later overturned by other psychiatrists. Last fall, Dickson gave a lengthy deposition in Petitt’s pending whistleblower claim against Delta in which he said he agreed with the decision to order a psychiatric examination.

Cantwell said Dickson failed to mention the matter in committee testimony, but senators later found documents about the case.

‘‘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. ‘‘We certainly can’t have organizations threaten pilots with this kind of retaliation.’’

But chairman Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, 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,’’ Wicker said. ‘‘I think he will bring commitment, experience, and expertise necessary to lead the FAA and fulfill its mission.’’

The only other senator who spoke before the vote, Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, said Dickson is ‘‘simply the wrong person to head the FAA.’’ He suggested that Dickson’s long tenure at Delta makes it impossible for him to be independent of the airline industry.

Chesley ‘‘Sully’’ Sullenberger, who landed a crippled airliner safely on the Hudson River in 2009, had lobbied against Dickson’s nomination. He said the FAA needs an administrator ‘‘who will act with integrity and independence to protect everyone who flies.’’

A trade group representing most large US airlines supports Dickson, who was an Air Force pilot before joining Delta as a pilot and rising to senior vice president of flight operations.

‘The FAA has been led by an acting administrator since January 2018.