Steve Dickson is leaving behind a legacy focused heavily on safety as the departing Federal Aviation Administration Administrator. Dickson announced his resignation last week, leaving the aviation industry buzzing about who would replace the former Delta pilot in perhaps one of the most critical regulatory positions on the globe.
“We operate the safest aerospace system in the world, we want to make sure that it stays that way,” Dickson said in a farewell video last Friday.
That pretty much summarizes the task ahead for Dickson’s replacement who will face unparalleled challenges coming out of the pandemic. So who should succeed Dickson and tackle the issues?
At least four names are being mentioned, according to aviation sources. The names include Deborah Hersman, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; Bradley Mims, deputy administrator of the FAA; Sully Sullenberger, the US Airways hero pilot who was confirmed in December to be the U.S. representative on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization board, the United Nations air safety body,.
And then there is John Boccieri, a United Airlines pilot and former U.S. Congressman from Ohio.
A Washington insider, who asked not to be named, said that Josh Earnest, a former spokesman for President Barack Obama and now United Airlines chief communications officer, is likely advocating with White House officials for an appointment that United approves. Earnest, who once dealt with aviation media, now is more focused on political relationships.
Dickson was a former Delta Air Lines pilot. Delta and United pilots are the two largest groups in the Air Line Pilots Association, the powerful pilots’ union.
Todd Insler, chairman of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, is an advocate for Boccieri.
“The position of administrator is complex,” Insler said. “It deals not only with piloting and the certification of pilots, commercial and other pilots, but also with manufacturers, government and thousands of FAA employees. It needs to be filled by someone who checks more than one box and who is a known quantity.”
Insler said Boccieri is not only a former U.S. Congressman, but is also a Cleveland-based United 737 first officer and a vice commander of the Pittsburgh Air Reserve base. “His resume shows he is qualified and competent,” Insler said. “We need someone who knows the ins and outs of government and the ins and outs of safety,” Insler said.
Industry officials say whoever takes the top FAA job, it will be imperative to carry on Dickson’s work.
“We can’t squander the momentum” that comes from Dickson’s work, said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots.
“This is about ensuring that aviation safety comes first and the commercial interests follow,” Tajer said. “The trend has been set and it must be bolstered. We’ve learned that too cozy a relationship with commercial interests can only lead to tragedy.”
Dickson’s two and a half years on the job may have been among the toughest ever for an FAA administrator. He battled Boeing. He battled Covid and disruptive passengers and anti-maskers. He battled cellphone giants AT&T and Verizon on the rollout of 5G cell phone service, perilously close to airports.
He may be winning all three battles, but it is clear that none have ended.
Two weeks before Dickson announced his planned departure, AT&T CEO John Stankey appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box. Stankey said the Federal Communications Commission “told the FAA, we don’t consider your concerns to be valid and you should go back and do the things you need to do to address them.
“When we get to the spectrum transitions and we’ve displaced somebody who’s a current occupant and in part of the spectrum band, there’s always dynamics that go on,” he said.
Perhaps the final straw for Dickson was the concept that aviation safety and faster video game processing are equal tenants of the spectrum. In any case, he will be gone March 31.