FAA administrator nominee Stephen Dickson defended the FAA’s practice of delegating certain safety and certification functions to manufacturers, telling lawmakers the agency’s Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program has “allowed regulators to get much more efficiency and add more safety value than just throwing extra resources at it.”

His remarks came during a May 15 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held to consider his nomination to head the FAA.

The Committee will hold a hearing at a later date to vote to advance Dickson’s nomination to the full Senate.

Questioning the nominee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) asked Dickson whether he would “commit to reverse the ODA delegation to the extent it has ... led to the abandonment and abrogation of FAA’s duty to actively and proactively oversee safety.”

“ODA is essentially safety on the cheap, and it gives the perception, if not the reality, of putting the fox in charge of the hen house—putting the manufacturers in charge of oversight,” Blumenthal said.

Dickson responded: “It’s very important not to jump to conclusions” regarding investigations into the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and the flight-control software implicated in two recent crashes. He added, “It’s very difficult to tell exactly what did and did not occur without being inside the agency and privy to the data they have.”

“What I will commit, is I will take the recommendations from the Special Committee set up within the Department of Transportation (DOT), the inspector general investigation and the other groups established to review processes, and if actions need to be taken or process changes need to be put into place, I guarantee those will be accomplished,” he added.

The nominee called cockpit automation—and possible deterioration of manual flying skills—“one of the most important issues” facing the FAA, and said that it “can create risk that we need to mitigate to make sure pilots maintain their manual pilot skills.”

He referenced programs he was involved with as Delta Air Lines SVP-flight operations that aimed to track pilot skills and develop exercises to train pilots on moving between various levels of automation as a model he would support if confirmed as FAA administrator.

“A focus on flight path management, rather than automation itself, is actually a more holistic way to address the issue, because it encompasses not only the manual flying skills but also the various levels of automation that a pilot may encounter during a particular flight,” Dickson said.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) expressed concern about reports that Boeing had made cockpit safety features including an angle-of-attack (AOA) disagree light optional instead of standard on the MAX 8, and asked Dickson if he believes manufacturers should be allowed to charge extra for any safety-critical or safety-enhancing feature.

“I am familiar with this issue and I agree that critical safety features need to be standard and always will be,” Dickson said. “With respect to other features, whether they are an enhancing feature in one context or a distracting feature in another, I would say that we need to look very carefully at the aircraft certification process to make that determination.”

“I’ve flown many airplanes without AOA indicators, and whether in this particular instance it would be considered a ‘safety-enhancing feature,’ I would have to rely on the data FAA currently has, as well as the specific committees currently examining this issue,” he added.

Dickson also said he has “no intention to disturb” the 1,500-hr. flight training rule for first officers at part 121 airlines, echoing recent comments made by DOT secretary Elaine Chao.

“I would never do anything to water down the current protocol. I think it has been very successful, but I do recognize that our safety system needs to continue to improve, and so if there is a better mousetrap out there, then I would certainly favor moving in that direction,” he said.

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@aviationweek.com