Trump to Nominate Former Delta VP to Head FAA

March 21, 2019

President Trump on March 19 made the long-awaited announcement that he will nominate Stephen Dickson, a longtime pilot and executive with Delta Air Lines, to be Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. When the Senate comes back from recess next week, the White House will send the Senate the formal paperwork transmitting the nomination.

The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed chief since the fixed five-year term of Michael Huerta expired in January 2018. Deputy Administration Dan Elwell has been serving as Acting Administrator, to general acclaim.

Dickson retired almost six months ago from Delta after a 27-year career there, capped off by more than a decade as Senior Vice President for Flight Operations. In that capacity, he oversaw Delta’s day-to-day flight operations, as well as pilot training, pilot standards, technical support, pilot staffing and scheduling, and their quality assurance/compliance functions. Prior to becoming management, he was a Delta pilot and captain, having been checked out on the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 727, 737, 757 and 767 airframes. He learned to fly in the U.S. Air Force, where he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1979 and went on to fly F-15s. During his time at Delta, he picked up a law degree from Georgia State as well.

Dickson’s nomination will be referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee for hearings. Dickson testified before Commerce ten years ago on behalf of Delta in the wake of the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, as the panel was looking into the relationship between network airlines and regional airlines (see transcript here).

If confirmed by the Senate, Dickson will take over a $17.5 billion agency that performs three distinct functions. The FAA runs a 24-7 air traffic control service provider (the bulk of its budget). It makes airport development grants to local governments ($3.8 billion in FY19). And it regulates the safety of the aviation system. (These three missions have, at some point in history, been handled by separate organizations and were finally combined into the FAA in 1958.)

It is the aviation safety aspect that is getting all the attention of late in the wake of two recent crashes of new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft overseas, which have led to questions about the process by which the FAA certified the plane’s electronic systems as safe. All global aviation safety regulators have not temporarily suspended the 737 MAX from active service, pending investigations.

The role of the FAA Administrator is unique at the Department of Transportation. The power to execute all laws under DOT’s purview is vested in one person – the Secretary – who then delegates functions administratively to the modal administrators and other personnel. This was the whole point of creating DOT in 1966 – vesting accountability on one person. But the 1966 law creating DOT had a special carve-out for aviation safety – under the compromise enacted by Congress, the Secretary would not have jurisdiction over aviation safety regulation. Instead, section 6(c) of that law provided that “Decisions of the Federal Aviation Administrator made pursuant to the exercise of the functions, powers, and duties enumerated in this subsection to be exercised by the Administrator shall be administratively final.” That language has been tweaked and expanded over the years, but the administrative independence of the FAA on safety oversight is still codified in subsection (f) of 49 U.S.C. §106.

President Trump on several occasions said that the thought that the head of the FAA should also be a qualified pilot. The first two FAA Administrators, Elwood Quesada (1958-1961) and Najeeb Halaby (1961-1965) were pilots. (Halaby in particular was a legendary test pilot, made the first transcontinental jet flight in U.S. history, and may have been the Most Interesting Man in the World in his time.) However, the third Administrator, William McKee, was not a pilot (unusually, he had been one of the few high-ranking Air Force generals of that time who was not a pilot). Since then, some FAA chiefs have been pilots and some have not. (The law requires that the Administrator be a U.S. citizen, be a civilian, and “have experience in a field directly related to aviation.”)

Reaction in the industry to the nomination was positive. The main airline trade association, Airlines for America, tweeted that “A4A applauds the nomination of Steve Dickson to be FAA Administrator. During his distinguished career, he has demonstrated strong leadership & unwavering dedication to aviation. His focus on safety, innovation & people make him a natural to lead @FAANews.” (This despite the fact that Delta messily quit A4A three years ago in a dispute over several things, including A4A’s support for breaking up the FAA’s safety and air traffic control functions, which Dickson and others opposed.)

The Air Line Pilots Association released a statement saying “Capt. Dickson’s extensive transportation experience would give him, if confirmed, a unique opportunity to enhance the safety of commercial aviation and we look forward to learning more about his vision on working collaboratively to protect and advance the safety of our national airspace. His nomination comes at a particularly critical time for the FAA, and it is our hope and expectation that the first of order business for him will be to reaffirm the agency’s steadfast commitment to safety.”

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