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Trump Administration Hopes New Leadership Can Calm Turbulence Roiling The FAA


The Trump administration is hoping new leadership can calm the turbulence roiling the Federal Aviation Administration. The president is nominating former Delta Airlines executive and pilot Stephen Dickson to head the FAA. That move comes as the agency faces increasing scrutiny over how it certified a new Boeing airplane, the 737 Max, which is the plane that's been involved in two deadly crashes in less than five months. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: To say the Federal Aviation Administration is under a cloud is an understatement. Last Sunday's crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 show similarities with the crash of a Lion Air 737 Max 8 in Indonesia last fall. And that raises new questions about how the FAA certified the plane in the first place and the coziness of the relationship between Boeing and its regulators. The Transportation Department's inspector general is investigating. The Justice Department reportedly is, too. And members of Congress are calling for hearings. Enter former Delta Airlines top executive, Stephen Dickson, President Trump's choice to lead the beleaguered agency.

JOHN COX: I think that the choice is a very good one.

SCHAPER: John Cox is a retired commercial airline pilot and now an aviation safety consultant.

COX: He has demonstrated through his many years at Delta that he has the skills and the motivation to help move the FAA forward. And I think that even though it will be challenging, I think he's very much up to the task.

SCHAPER: Among the challenges Dickson would face is restoring the confidence of the flying public. Many travelers question why the FAA kept insisting that Boeing 737 Max planes were safe to fly even after regulators in other countries grounded them on safety concerns. Paul Hudson founded and thinks Dickson could help stabilize the FAA.

PAUL HUDSON: Certainly on paper, he's very well qualified. And we think that the FAA badly needs new, competent, strong leadership to restore its safety reputation, which is now pretty much in tatters.

SCHAPER: Hudson gives Stephen Dickson high marks for overseeing operations and safety at Delta and in opposing the Trump administration's effort to privatize the nation's air traffic control system. That said, he raises concerns about the coziness Dickson might have with an industry he just retired from after 27 years. That's less of a concern, though, than is the way the FAA works with manufacturers like Boeing - through a program that designates employees of those manufacturers to sign off on certain safety matters instead of independent FAA officials.

HUDSON: Well, he can certainly reverse the policy of this full delegation.

SCHAPER: That's something many FAA employees would like to see end, too. Mike Perrone is president of Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, the union representing FAA safety inspectors, technicians and other regulatory employees.

MIKE PERRONE: We were against the designee program. We're against the airlines self-regulating. We believe our inspectors should be there out visiting the facilities more. They should hire more. Right now, there's a deficit of inspectors. The FAA cannot keep or hire inspectors enough to do the job, unfortunately.

SCHAPER: Perrone acknowledges a culture within the FAA that needs shaking up in order to shift the balance to more forcefully regulating safety from within. Experts say the FAA is still the world's gold standard of safety regulation and global commercial aviation. But some worry that high bar is about to fall. Chesley Sully Sullenberger, the pilot famous for safely landing a damaged plane on the Hudson River, calls this an ugly saga in an opinion piece today, adding, quote, "our credibility as leaders in aviation is being damaged." Fixing that credibility will be a challenge for Stephen Dickson if confirmed to head the FAA.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIAN TREANOR'S "ATAXIA C1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.