WASHINGTON — The Senate on party lines confirmed Stephen Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines executive, to head the Federal Aviation Administration for a five-year term Wednesday, giving permanent leadership to an agency embattled over the deadly crashes of two Boeing jets.
The 52-to-40 vote was unusually divided for the agency, which has not had permanent leadership for more than 18 months. That, in part, reflected concerns from some Senate Democrats about Dickson’s involvement in a whistleblower case at Delta. The partisan vote contrasted with the Senate’s vote Tuesday to confirm Mark T. Esper as secretary of defense with a bipartisan 90-to-8 nod.
“We’ve never had a partisan vote on an FAA nominee in the past, and I believe that we should have found consensus on a nominee for the FAA, given all of the concerns the public has about flying safety,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Dickson’s nomination was the first to advance out of the committee on party lines.
The confirmation of Dickson, who retired from Delta last fall after a 27-year career flying commercial routes and overseeing regulatory compliance, safety and pilot training, comes at a time of increasing pressure on the aviation agency. Questions still remain about the agency’s approval of the Boeing 737 Max and limited training procedures for the jet, which was involved in two deadly crashes in about five months.
As head of the agency, Dickson will now oversee the agency’s response to the public criticism and to the jet itself, which remains grounded. He was nominated shortly after the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March, after President Donald Trump initially ruminated on nominating his personal pilot, John Dunkin, to lead the agency.
Republicans and administration officials argued that Dickson, a former Air Force officer, Air Force Academy graduate and F-15 fighter pilot, had the appropriate credentials to oversee the agency. Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, chairman of the committee that oversaw the nomination, said that he expected Dickson’s “leadership will provide direction for the FAA at this crucial time.”
“Capt. Dickson is highly qualified to lead the FAA,” said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a statement. “Safety is the Department’s No. 1 priority, and he is committed to ensuring that the FAA’s safety culture, and safety record, continue to lead the world.”
Seven Democrats — all running for president — were absent for the vote. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., was also absent because of ongoing recovery from four fractured ribs but indicated his support for Dickson.
“I applaud the Senate’s vote today and have full confidence in Capt. Steve Dickson’s commitment to aviation safety,” Isakson said in a statement.