The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into whether Delta Air Lines violated FAA rules about promoting safety at a time when President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the agency was in charge of Delta’s flight operations.
The FAA investigation grew out of allegations by a Delta pilot that the airline retaliated against her for raising safety concerns. The Associated Press obtained a copy of an FAA letter sent to the pilot’s attorney detailing the investigation. The FAA declined to comment on the probe.
Trump’s nominee, Stephen Dickson, is under growing criticism from Senate Democrats over his initial failure to disclose his involvement in the case of the whistle-blowing pilot, who was grounded a few weeks after she raised safety issues to Dickson and other Delta executives.
Dickson authorized grounding the pilot for a psychiatric evaluation. Outside doctors later cleared her, and she has since returned to flying at Delta.
Dickson testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in May, and the committee is scheduled to vote on his nomination Wednesday. The FAA has been without a permanent administrator since January 2018.
Republicans hold the majority on the committee and in the full Senate, and Dickson had initially looked like a cinch to be confirmed. Dickson’s failure to disclose his role in the whistleblower’s complaint, however, has delayed and raised uncertainty about his fate and emboldened Democrats.
On Friday, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, Maria Cantwell of Washington, announced she will vote against Dickson.
“Information brought to our committee in recent weeks calls into question the safety culture that existed under Mr. Dickson that allowed a safety whistleblower to be retaliated against,” Cantwell said in a statement. “The nominee’s lack of candor about the issue was also troubling.”
Another Democrat on the committee, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, has said Dickson’s failure to disclose the whistleblower case on a committee questionnaire was “deeply concerning and potentially disqualifying.”
White House spokesman Judson Deere responded Friday that Trump picked Dickson based on his experience overseeing flight operations at Delta.
“The White House has complete confidence in his nomination and expects him to be confirmed,” Deere said.
Administration officials say they consider the pilot’s allegations to be a matter for Delta, not Dickson. They say he filled out all the paperwork accurately and has been open with the committee.
The panel’s chairman, Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, told Politico before Cantwell’s announcement that he would push the nomination ahead even if Democrats oppose Dickson.
“We’re determined to place the right man in the right office, and I think he’s the right man,” Wicker said.
The Associated Press left multiple email and telephone messages seeking comment from Dickson.
His nomination is coming to a vote as the FAA faces questions about its oversight of Boeing Co. and approval of the company’s best-selling plane. Two Boeing 737 Max jets crashed within five months, killing 346 people, and investigations are looking at the role played by new flight-control software.
The case that Cantwell and Blumenthal mentioned involves Delta pilot Karlene Petitt. She gave Dickson and another top Delta executive a report in early 2016 about safety issues, including pilots being forced to fly when fatigued. Petitt also emailed CEO Ed Bastian, who expressed interest in seeing the report and promised to follow up on it.