The US Commerce Committee voted along party lines to advance Steve Dickson’s nomination to head the FAA, setting the stage for a showdown on the Senate floor over whistleblower allegations that surfaced recently regarding his tenure as Delta Air Lines SVP-flight operations.

Dickson’s path to the helm of the FAA had been complicated by revelations of a whistleblower complaint alleging retaliation against a first officer that took place during his time at Atlanta-based Delta.

Dickson did not disclose the complaint, which is pending before an administrative judge at the Department of Labor, in the written questionnaire he submitted to the committee prior to its May 15 hearing on his nomination, although he argued in later written responses that he believed he only had to disclose instances in which he was named as a party to a proceeding. 

Dickson was not named as a defendant in the whistleblower complaint, although he was deposed as part of it.

“After Mr. Dickson’s hearing, new information came to the committee’s attention that involved employees reporting possible safety violations at Mr. Dickson’s former employer while he was serving as a senior vice president,” Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) said.

“These matters merited further investigation. The committee has since conducted an extensive review, including multiple follow-up conversations and meetings with Mr. Dickson. We have studied hundreds of pages of legal documents. It is clear that Mr. Dickson was not a named party in any of these matters and was not personally alleged to have retaliated against any of his fellow employees who raised safety concerns.”

The complaint was filed in June 2016 by a current pilot who alleged management retaliation after she submitted a report detailing federal aviation safety violations at a January 2016 meeting where Dickson was present. Citing concerns about the pilot’s mental health, Delta scheduled a psychiatric exam, at which a doctor selected by the company diagnosed the first officer with bipolar disorder, effectively barring her from flying. That decision was later reversed by a panel of Mayo Clinic physicians who unanimously concluded in February 2017 that the pilot does not have bipolar disorder or any other personality disorder.

The committee’s ranking member, Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), who had previously announced her opposition to the nomination, railed against Delta’s handling of the whistleblower and said that Dickson was partly responsible considering his position in charge of the carrier’s flight-safety regimen. 

“Instead of those safety concerns being brought forward and recommended to the organization, this pilot was retaliated against—and I don’t mean a general retaliation—I mean an absurd retaliation, in which she was sent to a psychiatrist who then claimed just because she juggled marriage, children and being a pilot, that somehow she must have been manic,” Cantwell said.

“This, in and of itself, may have been enough to say Mr. Dickson either didn’t know about this or didn’t participate, but since our investigation began, it’s become clear that Mr. Dickson did know what was happening, was involved with this pilot and still failed to disclose it to our committee.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), a senior member of the committee, said Dickson is the wrong pick to head the FAA at a time when reassuring the traveling public about the agency’s independence should be viewed as paramount.

“For this nominee to fail to disclose that kind of retaliation to this committee—and then further fail to condemn it—I think is absolutely disqualifying,” Blumenthal said. “His career at Delta Air Lines, far from being a qualification, should read as calling into question his independence and ability to put the FAA back in charge of safety.”

Dickson’s nomination is the first time in recent history an FAA administrator nominee has faced such stiff resistance from lawmakers, with every Democratic senator voting against him. With Republicans in control of the Senate, it appears likely that he will ultimately be approved, although only after facing more opposition from the full Senate as details regarding the whistleblower complaint continue to emerge.

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@aviationweek.com