After steering a battered Federal Aviation Administration through a turbulent two and a half years, agency leader Steve Dickson announced his resignation late Wednesday, saying he wanted to be closer to family.
A rare holdover from the Trump administration, Dickson drew praise from industry groups and labor unions after announcing his plans to leave. His resignation will be effective March 31.
“Over the past several years, my family has been a source of tremendous encouragement, strength and support,” Dickson said in a message to FAA employees. “Nevertheless, after sometimes long and unavoidable periods of separation from my loved ones during the pandemic, it is time to devote my full time and attention to them.”
In recent months, Dickson helped to shape a response to the launch of 5G wireless networks that the agency said threatened the safety of the aviation system, putting airlines at odds with wireless companies.
Dickson said that during his tenure, the agency’s staff had “done the hard work to reinvigorate our safety culture” and “overcome some of the toughest challenges the agency and the aerospace sector have ever faced.”
Dickson will leave the tasks of completing the agency’s safety overhaul and resolving 5G issues to his successor. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee and one of the FAA’s fiercest critics in recent years, said the agency’s next leader should be someone who can pick up that unfinished work.
“President Biden must now nominate a new leader committed to the highest standards of aviation safety, which means someone who will aggressively implement our landmark certification reform legislation, hold Boeing accountable for the tragic consequences of their decision to put profits over people when rolling out the 737 Max and ensure the safe coexistence of 5G wireless service and aviation,” DeFazio said in a statement.
After President Donald Trump nominated Dickson, Senate Democrats raised concerns about a claim of whistleblower retaliation during his time at Delta, and he was confirmed with only Republican votes. But unlike most political appointees, FAA administrators serve fixed terms, and Dickson was retained by Biden.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg praised his leadership in a statement Wednesday night, calling Dickson “the FAA’s steady and skilled captain.”
It was not immediately clear who might replace Dickson. The Senate Commerce Committee will be responsible for vetting Biden’s choice, and its chairwoman, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), said the agency’s new leader will have to tackle priorities that include safety reforms and furthering aerospace research and development.
The Max crashes, attributed in part to design flaws the FAA had overlooked, called into question the agency’s role as one of the world’s leading safety regulators and put its close relationship with Boeing under searing scrutiny.
Early in his tenure, when Boeing indicated the Max could soon fly again, Dickson told FAA employees in a video message that he recognized they might face pressure to act quickly but that the government would control the timeline.
“I want you to take the time you need and focus solely on safety,” Dickson said at the time. “I’ve got your back.”
In a survey of agency employees after the crashes that found festering criticism of FAA managers, Dickson earned relatively high marks.
David Spero, president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a major FAA union, said Dickson’s resignation came as a surprise, adding that the FAA administrator “brought dignity to the position and is a credit to the role of federal service.”
“We have not left anything to chance here,” Dickson said as he approved the planes to fly again in November 2020. “I would put my own family on it, and we will fly on it.”
The agency’s relationship with Boeing continues to be one of its most important, especially amid production problems with its 787 Dreamliner jets. Talking to reporters at a conference Thursday in Washington, Dickson said Boeing was moving in the right direction and had “really improved the discipline within their engineering organization.”
The Max returned to an air-travel system upended by the pandemic. As the virus first spread, people all but gave up flying. When it showed signs of loosening its grip, travel began to pick up — and with it came a rise in disruptive behavior, often tied to disputes over a federal mask order.
Dickson launched an enforcement campaign in which the FAA turned to little-used powers to levy hefty fines, while personally warning of the consequences.
The surge in unruly-passenger incidents has abated from its peak but continues to alarm airline crews and executives, some of whom have called for a no-fly list to keep disruptive travelers off planes.
Dickson’s most recent challenge came as Verizon and AT&T prepared to switch on high-speed 5G wireless networks. The system uses airwaves close to those relied on by a safety device on commercial planes, prompting the FAA to warn that interference could prove dangerous, even as the wireless companies pressed ahead with launch plans.
The rollout ultimately led to few disruptions after the White House struck a last-minute deal with the wireless companies to put safeguards in place near airports. In testimony before a congressional committee this month, Dickson acknowledged that the late scramble “did not serve anyone well.”
Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, thanked Dickson late Wednesday for his “outstanding leadership.”
“At a difficult time for the agency, Steve stepped up and led the FAA with confidence and strength, working to restore public confidence in our aviation system while implementing important bipartisan improvements to the aircraft certification process,” Graves said in a statement.
Christian Davenport contributed to this report.