The leading Democrat on the US senate panel considering Steve Dickson’s nomination to head the FAA said she will vote against him when the Commerce Committee takes up his nomination July 10, citing a “lack of candor” regarding his involvement in a whistleblower complaint during his tenure as SVP-flight operations at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines.

Commerce Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said in a statement that she had been initially inclined to support Dickson’s nomination “based on his experience and expertise” during his long career in the US Air Force and at Delta. 

“But at this time of unprecedented challenges involving aviation safety, we also need to be absolutely certain that the person chosen to lead the FAA has a clean record on safety, and the ability to restore the public’s trust in the FAA,” said the senator, adding that: “Unfortunately, information brought to our committee in recent weeks calls into question the safety culture that existed under Mr. Dickson that allowed a safety whistleblower to be retaliated against.”

The complaint in question was filed in June 2016 by a first officer who alleged the Atlanta-based carrier retaliated against her after she submitted a report detailing federal aviation safety violations at a January 2016 meeting where Dickson was present. Delta scheduled a psychiatric exam for the pilot after a human resources official became concerned about her mental health, according to the complaint. A doctor selected by the company diagnosed her with bipolar disorder in March 2016, effectively barring her from flying, although a panel of Mayo Clinic physicians unanimously determined in February 2017 that the pilot does not have bipolar disorder or any other personality disorder.

Cantwell said she recently met with the plaintiff, who informed the senator she had “repeatedly raised concerns about the safety culture at Delta to a number of executives, including Dickson.”

Cantwell also said that the doctor selected by the airline to perform the compulsory psychological evaluation “has a record that includes serious red flags, which deepens my concern about this case.”

Dickson, in written responses to questions submitted by Cantwell and other Democratic members of the Commerce Committee, defended the decision to refer the pilot for a psychiatric evaluation as a “sound course of action...based on the information available at the time,” adding that the referral was made based on statements the first officer made to company officials and “behavior she exhibited, which raised legitimate questions about her fitness to fly.”

Cantwell, however, said the written record produced by the pilot and her legal team “contradicts the picture Dickson has sought to paint of minimal involvement in the case,” adding that “given the urgent need for stronger safety culture and transparency throughout the FAA, these incidents do not paint a picture of the type of leadership we need.”

It is not clear yet how many of Cantwell’s Democratic colleagues plan to join her in opposing the nominee, but given the committee’s Republican majority, Dickson could still advance through the panel were all its Democratic members to vote against him. No Republicans on the Committee have signaled opposition to the nominee, and Dickson has the strong backing of chairman Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), who has indicated that the whistleblower complaint would not be enough to derail his support.

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@aviationweek.com