Substantial allegations against Steve Dickson, the nominee to head up the Federal Aviation Administration have been made by two pilots who worked for him. These suggest the former senior v.p. of Delta flight operations may be the wrong choice to head up a government safety agency with monumental tasks before it. Already the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has slowed the confirmation process to investigate Dickson more thoroughly.
A number of news outlets have reported the charge that Karlene Petitt, a Boeing 777 pilot with two decades of commercial flying experience and a Ph.D. from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, was grounded after reporting safety concerns to Delta management including Dickson. Within weeks of submitting her critique, the airline forced her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation that determined she suffered from bipolar disorder. Dickson ratified the decision to have her examined, saying it was a “sound course of action.”
But two later exams found that the initial diagnosis of bipolar disorder was unfounded. Petitt returned to work then filed a whistleblower suit claiming the mental health exam was retribution for reporting safety issues.
Dickson failed to disclose that he had been deposed in the lawsuit, which is required. There’s a larger issue, though, that goes to the heart of aviation safety. What kind of advocate for the flying public will Dickson be, if in his job with Delta, he seemed more inclined to target the messenger than investigate the message?
Members of the Senate committee should be hyper-focused on this question as the FAA faces one of the most consequential periods in its recent history. The next few years will likely put much scrutiny on the role of businesses in overseeing their own safety certifications as a result of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.
While Petitt is back flying the line, another Delta pilot who was fired after reporting safety issues under Dickson’s watch remains out of work, his whistleblower suit not scheduled to be decided until the end of this year.
Karl Seuring flew for Delta for over 30 years but when not flying for the airline, he had a side business doing technical consulting on fuel tank safety as the holder of a supplemental type certificate (STC) for 737 auxiliary fuel tank systems. Sometimes he supplied parts and assisted Delta with its contract maintenance business.
In 2016, while Delta was servicing a 737 for a foreign head of state, the airline opted to return the airplane to its home country without complying with the full SFAR-88 fuel tank flammability requirements that were a result of the in-flight explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.
Seuring and Delta’s technical operations folks apparently disagreed as to whether the flight was legal under post-TWA 800 fuel tank safety regulations. Delta’s argument appears to be that since the plane was destined for another country, the regulation did not apply. Seuring claimed the flight would operate over U.S. airspace and therefore the flight “exposed the plane, its occupants and Delta to safety risks.” As a holder of the STC, Seuring claimed he was responsible to the FAA.
Months after the dispute, which Capt. Seuring elevated to the FAA, he was fired from his pilot’s job. Delta claimed he’d misused his travel passes and abused his sick leave. His whistleblower case against the airline is pending and, as in the Petitt case, Dickson failed to disclose to the Senate, his role in Seuring’s lawsuit.
In a letter Seuring sent last month to Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of the committee charged with vetting the FAA nominee, Seuring urged the committee not to rush Dickson’s confirmation. “Americans expect a safety leader to head FAA,” he wrote.
The public expectation that the FAA will prioritize safety has already been undermined by the ongoing revelations about the 737 Max. Now we have two pilots telling their personal stories about the man who might lead the agency next. This is hardly the right stuff to elevate the expectations of the flying public.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.