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Former Delta Air Lines Executive and Pilot Is Top Pick to Head FAA

By Andy Pasztor and Alison Sider, The Wall Street Journal

Steve Dickson, a veteran Delta Air Lines pilot who retired as senior vice president of global flight operations at the airline last month, has emerged as the leading compromise choice for the Federal Aviation Administration chief, according to people familiar with the matter.

After a 27-year career with Delta, these people said, Mr. Dickson’s bid to become the top U.S. aviation regulator has garnered White House support, broad industry backing and a generally positive response among Senate Republicans. If confirmed by the Senate to a five-year term, Mr. Dickson would be the first head of the roughly 45,000-employee agency in three decades to come from a senior executive post at an airline.

The next FAA administrator faces major policy and regulatory decisions affecting the operation of drones, air-traffic-control modernization and the reduction of general aviation accidents, while maintaining a record safety level for scheduled passenger airlines.

Mr. Dickson could not be immediately reached for comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The agency’s leadership also confronts challenges stemming from pilot shortages experienced by some commuter carriers, and the closer integration of space launches into the nation’s crowded airspace.

FAA deputy administrator Daniel Elwell, who has been running the agency since January, quietly pulled out of the running for the post weeks ago because there was no consensus for his candidacy, according to government and industry officials tracking the process. He was looked up as the pick of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who oversees the FAA.

After months of jostling between the White House and some aviation industry leaders, it also became clear that President Trump’s personal preference for John Dunkin, an ex-airline pilot who later worked as Mr. Trump’s corporate pilot, continued to face the industry resistance. Mr. Dunkin’s name, which has been circulating on Capitol Hill recently, these officials said.

A final White House personnel decision has not been made, they said, and the situation could change. But at this point, Mr. Dickson appears to be the most viable candidate, with industry and government officials agreeing no other names are prominently being discussed. Some supporters anticipate an announcement of Mr. Dickson’s nomination in coming weeks.

Between permanent administrators, the FAA has been led by three separate acting administrators stretching back more than a decade.

Mr. Elwell and his predecessor, Michael Huerta, the most recent FAA chief to clear the Senate, often compared to the developing private space industry-and to some extent, the burgeoning market for commercial drones-to the early years of aviation after the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903.

The next FAA chief will have a balance between the proponents of these fledgling industries demanding regulatory flexibility, versus the agency’s traditional, sometimes slow-moving culture

The FAA’s top priority stems from the challenge of establishing new rules and expanding oversight and enforcement activities to cover fast-growing commercial operations of unmanned aircraft. But at the same time, the agency must operate in a deregulatory environment with White House officials generally skeptical-and often critical-of costs associated with additional federal regulations.

In addition, the FAA is in the midst of structural changes in the way it inspects airlines and approves new aircraft and parts.

Congress has helped chart to course by passing to multiyear FAA reauthorization package last month, but lawmakers gave agency officials wide latitude in implementing various provisions.

At Delta, Mr. Dickson, who flew five different aircraft types, was in charge of training, technical support and regulatory compliance for the carrier’s more than 13,000 pilots. An Air Force Academy graduate and former F-15 fighter pilot, he also has a law degree.

In recent years, Delta burnished its outstanding safety and reliability record, with particular emphasis on quantitative measures for safety and passenger satisfaction.

Unlike rivals including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, Delta has avoided high-profile regulatory compliance over compliance with safety rules.

Former Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson has been one of Mr. Dickson’s strongest advocates for the FAA post, according to industry officials.

Mr. Dickson years ago attracted some media attention by writing opinion pieces and giving interviews opposing efforts to privatize the nation’s air-traffic-control system and separate from the FAA by creating a stand-alone, nonprofit corporation funded by user fees. In a 2016 interview, Mr. Dickson allowed that FAA’s performance managing air-traffic control “needs to improve,” but maintained on behalf of Delta that separating the function from the FAA would amount to overkill. The FAA, White House, GOP leaders in the House and most other U.S. airlines supported the privatization initiative. The effort eventually collapsed due to Senate opposition.