President Trump’s nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration has lost the vote of a key Senator on the committee involved in the confirmation process. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, announced on Friday that she would not support former Delta Air Lines executive, Steve Dickson.
The senator said Dickson had displayed a lack of candor in his interactions with the Senate Commerce committee and questioned the safety culture that existed during Dickson’s time as director of flight operations at Delta.
Two pilots who worked under Dickson, Karlene Petitt and Karl Seuring, have filed whistle-blower complaints. After Dickson’s nomination, those complaints have been cited as raising questions about Dickson’s fitness for the nation’s top aviation safety job. Both pilots claim under Dickson’s leadership, Delta retaliated against them for reporting safety problems. Read their stories here.
But it was the case of Karlene Petitt that Sen. Cantwell referred to in her statement.
Petitt was removed from the flight schedule for a year and a half under a provision in the pilots union working agreement that enabled Delta to have her undergo a psychological evaluation. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by a company-approved psychologist. Petitt’s lawsuit claimed the evaluation was prompted by her reporting of safety violations at the airline. Later, two independent psychologists said Petitt was not bipolar, the diagnosis by Delta’s choice of doctor was wrong and Petitt returned to work.
“Instead of being celebrated for her potentially life-saving diligence, first officer Petitt was sent for a compulsory mental health examination,” the Senator wrote. “The doctor Delta chose for this compulsory exam has a record that includes serious red flags, which deepens my concern about this case.”
“This is not the kind of leadership that we need,” the Senator concluded.
Sen. Cantwell who represents the aviation-centered state of Washington, said she supported Dickson’s nomination prior to becoming aware of Petitt’s situation.
The pilots’ claims have put Delta in the unusual position of having to defend a former executive because his political future is bound to Federal whistle-blower cases against the airline that are still pending. But one also suspects Delta is extremely eager to see one of its own take over the leadership of the FAA.
Earlier this year, I reached out to Delta about the firing of Karl Seuring who charges Delta took action against him for pointing out safety issues. The airline declined to comment at the time. Now, however, Delta is saying that the long-time Delta captain could not have been the subject of retaliatory firing because he was discharged for misusing travel passes before he raised his safety concerns.
Indeed, Seuring’s case is multi-faceted involving work done for Delta by his private company and an acknowledgment that he did allow others to use his travel passes which he and other pilots say is not uncommon. Capt. Seuring has been sending information about his complaint to Capitol Hill. It may have provided underpinning to Sen. Cantwell’s decision but it is Petitt’s case and only her case cited by the Senator.
Full release from Sen. Cantwell’s office is below.
I am a journalist, a published author, speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.