By nominating Steve Dickson to serve as the next FAA administrator, U.S. President Donald Trump has advanced the name of a former airline pilot steeped in the NextGen air traffic control (ATC) modernization effort, who also served as a prominent opponent of spinning off the agency’s ATC function to a separate entity.
A U.S. Air Force veteran, Dickson retired as Delta Air Lines senior VP of flight operations in October 2018 after serving 27 years with the airline. In that role, he was responsible for Delta’s operational and safety performance, pilot training, crew scheduling and regulatory compliance.
“Steve is a longtime, respected and admired Delta leader who has provided steady, thoughtful and impactful leadership in both good and bad times—not only at Delta, but across the industry,” CEO Ed Bastian and COO Gil West wrote in a memo to all employees when Dickson retired.
During his tenure at Delta, Dickson also served as chairman of the RTCA NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force, known as Task Force 5, that in 2009 produced recommendations to expedite the ATC modernization effort. Dickson succeeded the original chairman—Randy Babbitt—who then-President Barack Obama tapped that year to be FAA administrator.
The task force effort produced the industry-government NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC), which the FAA formed in 2010 to develop priorities and provide guidance on rolling out the long-running NextGen program. The committee operated under RTCA management until last May, when the FAA reformed it as a committee with its own charter. Dickson served on the NAC until his retirement from Delta.
In 2015, Dickson became embroiled in the debate over whether the FAA should relinquish its role in managing the U.S. ATC system to a separate entity governed by aviation system stakeholders, something Congress was considering in FAA reauthorization legislation. Trump originally endorsed creating an independent ATC organization in 2017 after he became president.
Differing from other major U.S. airlines, Delta said it considered ATC corporatization a distraction that would disrupt momentum the FAA had already made toward modernization. Differences over FAA control of ATC and the function of the Export-Import Bank led Delta to sever its ties with trade organization Airlines for America in 2016.
Dickson became a spokesman for the Delta position on retaining FAA oversight of ATC in op-eds and interviews.
“Delta’s anti-corporatization point man Steve Dickson has upped the ante in the airline’s lone-wolf campaign against proposals to convert the (FAA’s) Air Traffic Organization into a self-funded, federally chartered nonprofit corporation governed by a stakeholder board,” the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole—a prominent advocate of creating a separate ATC entity—wrote in December 2015. “While his previous statements focused on not rocking the boat regarding NextGen’s modest progress, his latest efforts include demonstrably false claims about Nav Canada, the poster child for U.S. ATC reform.”