While his nomination became controversial in recent months on Capitol Hill, the confirmation of Stephen Dickson as FAA administrator has drawn broad support from industry leaders who have maintained that he has been a strong safety advocate with a wealth of aviation experience. A former U.S. Air Force F-15 pilot who spent 27 years with Delta Air Lines, Dickson was confirmed on Wednesday to a five-year term at the helm of the agency, filling a position that has been held on an acting basis by Dan Elwell. The last permanent administrator, Michael Huerta, stepped down at the end of his five-year term in early 2018.
Meanwhile, the Senate approved by voice vote a waiver to allow Elwell to return to his previous position of deputy administrator, even though both Elwell and Dickson are former military officers. They must still receive House approval.
Most recently senior v-p of flight operations for Delta, Dickson had become known within aviation circles, particularly for his involvement in NextGen initiatives. “NBAA has had a close working relationship with Steve for many years, and we’re confident he’s the right man for the job,” NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said. “Having a permanent administrator at the FAA is key to ensuring the continued advancement of important work being done on aviation-system modernization, equipment certification, workforce development, safety, and other top priorities.”
Others had similar thoughts: “I’ve worked closely with Steve for many years and know firsthand his dedication to safety. The industry would benefit from his vast knowledge and experience with aviation at all levels,” said National Air Transportation Association v-p of regulatory affairs John McGraw.
Helicopter Association International president and CEO Matt Zuccaro praised Dickson's “comprehensive understanding of the national air transportation system.” National Air Traffic Controllers Association president Paul Rinaldi, who represents the largest workforce contingent at the FAA, added that his organization would continue “our great working relationship with him. For nearly a decade, I have had the pleasure of working with Administrator Dickson, as we have served as members on the FAA’s Management Advisory Committee. I have personally experienced his leadership in the aviation safety community.”
Airlines for America president and CEO Nicholas Calio reiterated, “He has the vision, knowledge, and experience to lead the FAA at this crucial time.”
These sentiments have been echoed by numerous other organizations, and they all agree that he is stepping in at a critical time for an embattled agency that has been under intense scrutiny in wake of the 737 Max crashes. During his confirmation hearing, Dickson was closely questioned by lawmakers about his commitment to safety.
That commitment was further questioned as lawmakers learned of a complaint filed by a whistleblower who alleged that Delta had retaliated against her after she raised safety concerns. The events involved in the complaint occurred while Dickson held a leadership role at the airline; however, Dickson was not specifically named a party to that complaint.
Several Democrats expressed concerns, including the leading Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which had jurisdiction over the nomination. “It is clear to me he is not the right person for the safety culture that we need today at the FAA,” ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) had said before his confirmation vote. These concerns necessitated a procedural vote to prevent a filibuster and ultimately led to the final 52-40 vote approving the nomination.
Following approval, Republicans on Capitol Hill also reiterated support for Dickson. “Mr. Dickson was chosen to lead the FAA because of his experience, impressive qualifications, and commitment to ensure that safety is the agency’s top priority. I look forward to working with Mr. Dickson and expect his leadership will provide direction for the FAA at this crucial time,” said Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi).
“Having a confirmed leader in place at a federal agency as important as the FAA is vital to ensuring the safety and improvement of the national aviation system, and I commend the Senate for confirming Steve Dickson as the next administrator of the FAA,” added the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Sam Graves (R-Missouri).
Elwell, meanwhile, also continued to capture industry support even as he has faced the fire of Congress for the activities surrounding the Max. General Aviation Manufacturers Association president and CEO Pete Bunce, who welcomed the confirmation of Dickson, added, “GAMA also strongly endorses Congress passing a waiver to ensure Dan Elwell continues to serve as FAA deputy administrator. Mr. Elwell has proven to be a very effective manager and leader at the FAA and will provide important continuity and support as Mr. Dickson takes over as administrator.”
Calio expressed similar sentiments, saying “Mr. Elwell has done an outstanding job as acting administrator” and Graves praised him “for his stalwart leadership and professionalism during very difficult circumstances.”