With all the questions and concerns about how FAA came to certificate the flawed Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, the agency desperately needs a new Administrator to implement changes and help rebuild the agency’s reputation. Ideally that person would have an impeccable background in aviation, with a strong focus on operational safety. Management experience in a large organization would be another big plus.
Remarkably, President Trump nominated someone with all those qualities, a veteran pilot for Delta Air Lines named Stephen Dickson, a 1979 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Dickson spent 12 years as an Air Force officer and joined Delta in 1991. He flew both Boeing and Airbus models, and even earned a law degree from Georgia State University College of Law in 1999. While continuing to fly for Delta, Dickson also began working in management in 1999. He rapidly moved up the org chart and was named Senior VP-flight operations in 2006, a post he held until retiring in 2018.
With a stellar resume, nearly a decade of service on the NextGen Advisory Committee, and strong support from the aviation community, Dickson’s nomination seemed poised to sail through the Senate Commerce Committee following his May 15 hearing before the panel.
But in early June, a Washington-variety banana peel landed in his path. News accounts detailed a lawsuit against the carrier by a female Delta pilot claiming the company had “retaliated” against her for raising safety concerns. A Labor Department administrative law judge is adjudicating that legal action. Dickson is not a defendant, but did give a deposition in the case.
When news media reports linking Dickson’s nomination and the suit appeared, the Commerce Committee postponed a vote on Dickson and set out to collect more information.
Testimony from the DOL proceedings shows that the veteran pilot in question was well known to Delta’s Flight Operations Department senior management, because she kept seeking them out over a period of years. She was tenacious about expressing her views, whether complaining about what she considered unfair treatment or advocating for safety initiatives.
By early 2016, Flight Operations management became concerned about whether her inability or unwillingness to comply with certain policies could lead to operational issues in the cockpit. (Mental fitness of airline pilots was a concern of many airline officials at that time. On March 24, 2015, the copilot on a Germanwings A320 locked the captain out of the cockpit during a flight and purposely crashed the airplane into the Alps, killing all 150 people aboard. The co-pilot had been diagnosed with depression but had not shared that information with his employer).
The growing concerns about the Delta pilot’s mental state led to a senior female member of Delta’s Human Resources department flying from Atlanta to Seattle to interview the pilot. Upon returning, the HR representative told colleagues she was very concerned about the pilot’s demeanor, particularly her fears something bad was going to happen to her.
Ultimately, Delta moved to a Section 15 proceeding (outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement). Delta’s health services, legal, HR, and other departments were part of the process. The pilot was referred to a psychiatrist and removed from flight status. After 18 months on the ground (during which time the pilot continued to receive pay and benefits), the company agreed to reinstate her to flight status. She later filed the suit against Delta and continues to fly for the airline.
Nothing I saw in scouring hundreds of pages of testimony in the DOL case suggests anyone at Delta had a vendetta against the pilot. But officials did have a responsibility to investigate whether that pilot could still be trusted to safely fly a plane. Dickson’s tangential involvement in that process should not prevent his confirmation as FAA Administrator. BAA