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Eno Transportation Weekly

FAA, STB Nominees Advanced in Senate

July 11, 2019 

Stephen Dickson, nominee for the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), had his nomination advanced from the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Wednesday, July 10. The vote was 14-12 on party lines in favor of advancing the nomination to the full Senate. The committee also approved Michelle Schultz for an open seat on the Surface Transportation Board by voice vote.

After sailing through his initial nomination hearing, Dickson appeared to be well on his way to an expedited confirmation to the post until allegations of retaliating against a whistleblower came to light. While an executive of Delta Airlines, pilot Karlene Petitt came forward with aircraft safety concerns, and was summarily removed from flying, which she alleges was in retaliation for reporting these issues.

Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) voiced his support for Dickson. While chairman Wicker believed the “matters merited further investigation”, after reviewing all available documents their investigation found no history of retaliation against employees who raised safety concerns. While Dickson was not named in the lawsuit brought by Petitt, she noted that Dickson was one of the executives she raised her concerns with.

Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) voiced the concerns of Democrats on the committee over the allegations against Dickson. Cantwell was particularly perturbed with the level of retaliation, calling it an “absurd retaliation”. Petitt was required to undergo psychiatric evaluation, where the psychiatrist noted that someone who juggles marriage, three young children, school, and being a pilot, must be manic. The determination was refuted by two other psychiatrists. Despite Senator Wickers notes to the contrary, Senator Cantwell bluntly stated that Dickson “did know of the lawsuit, was involved with the pilot, did know what was happening, and failed to disclose it to this committee.”

Blumenthal pointed to a letter penned by “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot “Sully” Sullenberger calling for the committee to reject Dickson’s nomination due to his disregard for safety concerns. As a pilot, safety is paramount, and executives who do not take these concerns seriously have no business championing the FAA as the gold standard of aviation safety. Blumenthal also insinuated that Dickson’s association with Delta would make it virtually impossible to remain impartial to the airline industry.

The contentious nature of the markup and the party-line is a sign that two or three Republican defections could scuttle the nomination on the floor. While Dickson still appears to have the support of the Republican majority, his safety record is likely to be further scrutinized before a full Senate vote on his confirmation.

At the STB, a law enacted in 2015 expanded the Board from three members to five. The Board has never had the full complement of members – President Obama never nominated anyone for the fourth and fifth slots, and President Trump has taken his time. The three current members are chairman Ann Begeman (R), vice chairman Patrick Fuchs (R), and Martin Oberman (D). The Commerce Committee this week approved Michelle Schultz (R) for one of the two vacant slots – but the tradition of the Senate is not to move nominees to regulatory boards from one party unless they are paired with a nominee from the other party.

A few months back, there was some discussion that President Trump might re-nominate outgoing STB holdover member Deb Miller (D) for another term, but Miller moved back to Kansas a couple of months ago to take over the University of Kansas’s Public Management Center. It is not clear who Trump will nominate for the vacant Democratic STB slot.

 

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