Senate Holds FAA Administrator’s Confirmation Hearing

Stephen Dickson, the nominee for Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on May 15 for his confirmation hearing. Dickson enters his hearing highly regarded as a former military and commercial pilot and executive with Delta Airlines. If confirmed, he would replace Daniel Elwell who has been acting administrator since January 7, 2018, following the expiration of Michael Huerta’s five-year term.

The Boeing 737 MAX crashes and related issues were at the forefront of questioning, with topics of safety, regulatory capture, and the FAA’s reputation as a global leader in aviation all receiving a large share of the hearing’s time. Other topics included the integration unmanned aerial vehicles, the burgeoning of commercial space system, air traffic control systems, and increasing automation.

In his opening statement, Dickson stated safety as his top priority, going on to say decisions should be rooted and based on sound science and analysis. He was concerned about the FAA’s fading association as the gold standard of aviation safety and committed to restoring confidence that had been lost due to the Boeing 737 Max crashes. While noncommittal on specifics of the 737 Max review process, Dickson stated that he will comprehensively examine the recommendations of the review board and implement their recommendations. Direct questioning on specifics of the 737 MAX crashes was minimal, possibly due to the concurrent House hearing with acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell, who would be more privy to details of the process.

In regard to pilot training and automation, Dickson reiterated his belief that pilots need to maintain manual flying skills with training and support provided by carriers. He believes that the tools and training that are in place are adequate but believes in a more wholistic approach that optimizes safety skill sets between human and automated systems. When pressed on changes to the 1500-hour rule, requiring co-pilots have at least that many flight hours in order to hold hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, he would not commit to preserving the rule in perpetuity but believes that it has had a profound effect and would not implement changes to safety rules that lower the current level of safety.

Concern was expressed by multiple Senators on the possibility of regulatory capture in the airline certification process. Dickson noted their concern and if confirmed would hold a comprehensive review of the process, while taking into account the recommendation of review panels and officials at all levels. Dickson confirmed that he would not allow the FAA to become captive to the airline industry and that his primary service is to the American public.

The emerging areas of commercial space flight and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) may be a focus of Dickson’s approach to administrating his duties if confirmed. He was adamant on the need to foster innovation and creativity, but there needs to be careful management of potential airspace conflicts, especially for launch and landing of commercial space vehicles. On integrating UAV, Dickson called for a need to find a proper balance between federal, state, and local officials, possibly indicating a deferral of certain federal regulations to more localized levels.

Air traffic control (ATC) was mentioned briefly in Dickson’s opening remarks, specifically the implementation and mismanagement of NextGen, and brought up again by Senator Tammy Duckworth (R-IL) in regard to the privatization of ATC responsibilities. Dickson highlighted the importance of modernizing the US ATC system but avoided directly addressing the issue of privatization or other ATC spinoff, which was a major issue of contentious debate in the last FAA reauthorization law.

Throughout the hearing Dickson was praised on his qualifications and demeanor. Barring any setbacks, Dickson is likely to be confirmed with wide bipartisan support. You can watch the  hearing in its entirety here.

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