Cantwell on Dickson Nomination to FAA: “Not the Right Person for the Safety Culture We Need”

Commerce Committee Ranking Member slams unprecedented party-line vote on nominee to lead the FAA

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, took to the Senate floor in opposition to Stephen Dickson’s nomination to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“I rise today to speak in opposition to the nomination of Stephen Dickson to be the next administrator of the FAA. I have said that it is very important that in this day and age, when it comes to aviation, safety must always be our top priority,” Ranking Member Cantwell said. “We've considered Mr. Dickson's nomination, his record, an ongoing case of a whistleblower retaliation. And given all of that, it is clear to me he is not the right person for the safety culture that we need today at the FAA.”

Last month, CNN was first to report on Mr. Dickson’s role in the alleged retaliation against First Officer Karlene Petitt, a Delta Air Lines pilot with over 40 years of flying experience. After raising serious safety concerns with Mr. Dickson and several other senior Delta executives, First Officer Petitt, a Washington state resident, was sent to a company-selected doctor who incorrectly diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and grounded her from flying for 18 months—a move she alleges was related to her status as a whistleblower at Delta. Mr. Dickson failed to disclose this troubling episode to the Commerce Committee, and then later tried to minimize his role in the episode but refused to acknowledge any error on his or Delta’s part in First Officer Petitt’s treatment.

“Can you imagine, as a whistleblower, bringing up concerns, and as a pilot flying for many years, and instead of being paid attention to, be sent for a psychiatric evaluation? Just a few months later, after First Officer Petitt continued to try to raise her concerns, that’s exactly what happened. Delta and Mr. Dickson removed her from duty and required her to undergo a mental health evaluation and forced her to protect her career and her reputation,” Ranking Member Cantwell said.

The doctor chosen for this sensitive task by Delta had serious red flags, raising the question of why he was hand-picked and paid an exorbitant fee for what turned out to be a consequential incorrect diagnosis. Just two weeks ago, new reporting from CNN showed that this doctor was already the subject of an investigation in the state of Illinois for his conduct in a totally separate case involving a Delta pilot. His line of questioning with First Officer Petitt—as detailed in the documents made available to the Commerce Committee—are extremely troubling as well.

“For example, the doctor cited that just because Officer Petitt had three kids, a job, and helped her husband with his career, she must be manic,” Ranking Member Cantwell said. “I don't know about you, Madam Chair, but to me it just sounds like being an American woman today – juggling many things. The psychiatrist even had the nerve to insist to ask when the first officer was breast-pumping milk for her children. That's the kind of questions that the officer had to answer?”

Mr. Dickson’s nomination also had the dubious distinction of being the first FAA nominee to receive a party-line vote out of committee.

“It is distressing to me that Mr. Dickson advanced out of committee on just a party line vote. 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,” Ranking Member Cantwell said.

On the eve of that party-line vote in committee, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger came out in opposition to Dickson’s nomination, imploring senators to oppose the nomination.

The transcript of Ranking Member Cantwell’s full statement is available HERE.