July 23, 2019 / 4:17 PM / 5 months ago

U.S. Senate to hold initial vote on former Delta exec as FAA nominee

WASHINGTON, July 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate was set to vote on Tuesday to advance the nomination for head of the Federal Aviation Administration of a former airline executive whose handling of a whistleblower case has come under criticism from Democrats.

Safety concerns are an issue at the FAA, which is grappling with a review of Boeing Co's grounded 737 MAX in the wake of two crashes that killed 346 in October and March and broader questions about how it certifies aircraft and whether it delegates too much authority to manufacturers.

The Senate will vote on former Delta Air Lines executive Stephen Dickson's nomination. The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed chief for more than 18 months.

The Senate must first vote to end debate on the nomination before it can proceed to a final vote, expected later this week.

This month, the Senate Commerce Committee voted 14 to 12 along party lines to approve the nomination.

Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the panel, raised concerns about Delta's treatment during Dickson's tenure of a whistleblower pilot who raised concerns about pilot training on the A-330 when it came to automation and ensuring that pilots were getting enough rest time.

"He is not the right person for the safety culture that we need at the FAA," Cantwell said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, a Republican, said the panel spent two months "reviewing any and all information" about the issue. Dickson was never accused of retaliating against any whistleblower, Wicker added.

U.S. President Donald Trump in March said he would nominate Dickson to run the 45,000-employee agency, which oversees U.S. airspace. Dickson left Delta in October after 27 years.

The FAA, which has been run by an acting chief Dan Elwell since January 2018, is facing mounting questions over its certification of the 737 MAX from federal prosecutors, lawmakers and the Transportation Department's inspector general.

Elwell needs a waiver from Congress to remain in his job because both he and Dickson are former U.S. military officers.

Dickson's nomination had been in the works for months before the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Last year, Reuters and other outlets reported that Trump was considering his longtime personal pilot, John Dunkin, to lead the FAA, an idea that came under criticism from some lawmakers.

The FAA is also dealing with such issues as how to integrate drones into the nation's airspace, modernizing air traffic control and addressing other regulatory issues including setting minimum rest periods for airline flight attendants. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio)

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