Former Delta Air Lines executive Stephen Dickson told lawmakers he would review the system used by the Federal Aviation Administration to certify the safety of aircraft and over-reliance on automation by pilots if he is confirmed to lead the agency.
“I would never certify an airplane I wouldn’t put my family on,” Dickson told lawmakers at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where he appeared Wednesday for his confirmation hearing.
Dickson, who was nominated by President Donald Trump to become administrator of the FAA, would join the agency as it faces scrutiny over its process for certifying the Boeing 737 Max aircraft that is the subject of multiple investigations after an Ethiopian Air Lines crash in March and Lions Air accident in Indonesia in October. The two crashes killed 346 people.
“Despite the enviable track record of aviation safety in the U.S. over the past decade and more, we must never rest,” Dickson said. “In aviation, you are only as good as your last takeoff and your last landing. Humility is always in order.”
Dickson, an Air Force Academy graduate with a long career in aviation, recently retired as senior vice president for flight operations at Delta where he oversaw performance of the airline’s fleet, pilot training and regulatory compliance. His career also included serving as captain of a crew flying an Airbus A320, and he flew in Boeing 727, 737 and 767 jets.
Although he faced tough questions over how he’d handle the aircraft certification and safety issues at the agency, lawmakers of both parties welcomed Dickson.
“I’m pleased to have such a qualified nominee before us,” said the committee’s top Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington, who also praised Dickson for his service in the Air Force. But, she added, he would have to address many issues at the agency, including those surrounding Boeing.
“Obviously the 737 Max highlights the very diligent work we need to do on safety,” Cantwell said. She asked how he would address pilots’ continued over-reliance on automation.
Dickson said he would work to ensure that while innovation continues, pilots maintain their manual flying skills, which come in handy if technology falters.
“As automation continues to advance, it provides many benefits,” Dickson said. “However it can create risks that we need to mitigate.”
The FAA had been without an administrator since January 2018 when Michael Huerta stepped down at the end of a five-year term. Daniel Elwell currently serves as acting administrator.
As Dickson addressed senators, Elwell appeared at the same time before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to update lawmakers on the status of the Boeing 737 Max.
“The FAA welcomes scrutiny. It helps make us better,” Elwell told lawmakers.
The agency, Elwell said, plans to host a meeting May 23 with directors general of civil aviation authorities from around the world to discuss the FAA’s activities toward ensuring the safe return of the 737 MAX to service.
“As our work continues, I want to offer this assurance; in the U.S., the 737 Max will return to service only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is safe to do so,” Elwell said.
Ranking member Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., questioned assertions the FAA was to blame for the crashes, saying that in both Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air, the pilots he described as “both in their 20s and with less than 160 total hours combined flying a 737 Max,” were partly at fault.
“While we are early in the investigations, many appear to have already concluded that the FAA’s processes are to blame,” Graves said. “Should the various investigations reveal problems with the certification of the 737 MAX, Congress can and should act, but any actions Congress or regulators consider must be based on facts, not a panicked desire to “do something.”
Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-N.Y., said the FAA has begun providing the committee with documents requested surrounding the agency’s certification process and handling of the 737 Max after the accidents, but that Boeing has not yet provided “a single” document.
“I’m hoping that they will provide the documents we have requested voluntarily and in the not-too-distant future,” DeFazio said, adding the accidents have led to questions worldwide over the FAA’s certification process.
Some critics have accused the FAA of abdicating its authority and letting Boeing self-regulate. Through the agency’s Organization Designation Authorization, or ODA, the FAA gives approved companies the authority to issue certifications on behalf of the FAA.
“Every ODA member is vetted by the FAA before that member is approved,” Elwell said. “Not only has ODA been a refined process for decades, it’s also been endorsed by Congress.”
Dickson also faced questions about the FAA’s handling of the certification process and suggestions that the agency was abdicating its authority and letting Boeing self-regulate.
“That suggests a serious breakdown of the certification process,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation and Space.
He asked Dickson what he would do to prevent “agency capture” and any further accidents due to agency “mistakes.”
“I can commit to you that if I’m confirmed, I will be looking into this very specifically,” Dickson said, adding he would make changes based on the recommendations by the different panels reviewing the 737 Max and the certification process that may have led to a lapse in the safety system.
Cruz, whose state hosts the headquarters of Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, has been particularly tough on the FAA regarding its handling of the safety certification of the 737 Max.
“What I’m asking you to do if you’re confirmed is be pissed off that 346 people died . . . and that was preventable,” Cruz told Dickson. “I’d ask you not to give in to the natural bureaucratic reaction that defends what happens.”