Dickson was appointed in 2019 to lead the agency that administers the largest, most complicated, and safest national airspace system in the world. He faced challenges from his first day on the job, including fallout from the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max after the second of two of the new airliners crashed weeks after the first, killing hundreds of people and putting the future of the world-leading aerospace company that made them in doubt.
Dickson’s efforts to restore the agency’s credibility as a conscientious safety regulator figured prominently in media coverage of his departure, but his leadership in approving the return of that aircraft to service (including personally flying a 737 Max prior to the agency signing off on modifications to the aircraft) was far from his only achievement, or challenge. The coronavirus pandemic brought air travel to a halt worldwide, and Dickson cited that among the chief reasons for his departure in his message to FAA staff.
“Over the past several years, my family has been a source of tremendous encouragement, strength and support,” Dickson told 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.”
A U.S. Air Force Academy graduate who flew McDonnell-Douglas F–15s during his military career, Dickson later went on to Delta Air Lines to serve as a line pilot and later as a senior executive. He worked at Delta for 27 years before retiring from his post as senior vice president of global flight operations. During his tenure leading the FAA, Dickson had many hot-button issues reach his desk, including one with a direct effect on general aviation—when the agency began requiring a letter of deviation authority (LODA) from owners of experimental, primary, and limited category aircraft in order to give or receive flight instruction in their own aircraft. The move was sharply criticized by AOPA and the Experimental Aircraft Association, among others—including Dickson himself:
“Let me start out by addressing an issue that is a source of frustration for many of you, and for me as well,” Dickson said during his Meet the Administrator session at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on July 29. “It’s a four-letter word spelled LODA… I’m not any happier about this situation than you are.”
A more recent problem with causes distinctly external to the FAA offered Dickson another chance to speak up on behalf of fellow pilots: leading the FAA’s response to the potential danger to aviation safety posted by the activation of 5G C-band wireless networks.
Dickson briefed Congress February 3 on the agency’s progress toward resolving the activation of those new wireless networks that rendered radar altimeters, a critical safety device installed on thousands of aircraft, unreliable for use in precision navigation in bad weather. Again, the military and airline veteran kept GA in mind:
“We recognize that some communities and operations have been affected because we have not been able to fully mitigate interference risk,” Dickson told a congressional committee, pledging to continue leveraging the newfound spirit of cooperation from the wireless industry (which had previously resisted years of repeated pleas from aviation stakeholders to delay activation pending hazard mitigation), leaving criticism of the Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry to those congressional leaders who were present.
The FAA has reported more progress since, evident on a 5G dashboard the agency created online to keep all stakeholders informed.
“We are proud to have worked with Administrator Dickson on several important initiatives, which have kept the skies safe for our 300,000 members,” said AOPA President Mark Baker. “I have worked closely with Steve for several years on key aviation issues both in his leadership role at the FAA and serving together on the NextGen Advisory Committee. Steve has been fully committed to the FAA’s mission and his service to our nation in both the United States Air Force and as administrator of the FAA are appreciated. We wish him well.”
Dickson said in his resignation announcement to FAA staff that the agency 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… although my heart is heavy, I am tremendously proud of everything we have accomplished together over the past several years.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg praised Dickson’s leadership in a statement released soon after the FAA chief’s pending departure became public:
“Steve has been the FAA’s steady and skilled captain, and his tenure has been marked by steadfast commitment to the FAA’s safety mission and the 45,000 employees who work tirelessly every day to fulfill it. We are grateful for his years of service to our country and his lifelong dedication to making sure our aviation system is the best and safest in the world.”