Wires

U.S. Senate panel advances nomination for FAA chief

David Shepardson

WASHINGTON, July 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee voted narrowly on Wednesday to send the nomination of a former airline executive to head the Federal Aviation Administration to the full Senate.

The committee voted 14 to 12, along party lines, to approve former Delta Air Lines executive Stephen Dickson's nomination. The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed chief for 18 months.

The FAA is currently grappling with a review of Boeing Inc's now grounded 737 MAX in the wake of two crashes that killed 346 in October and March.

Senator Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the panel, voted against the nomination and raised concerns about a whistleblower's treatment during Dickson's tenure at Delta.

Cantwell said the pilot of an Airbus A330 faced "absurd" retaliation by the airline for raising safety concerns about the level of automation and lack of pilot training at Delta. Dickson should have disclosed the legal dispute to the committee before his confirmation hearing, she said.

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.

"It is vital to have a Senate-confirmed administrator at helm of the FAA at this crucial time," Wicker said.

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 for 18 months, Dan Elwell, is facing mounting questions over its certification of the 737 MAX from federal prosecutors and lawmakers.

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.

At Delta, Dickson oversaw more than 13,000 pilots and an internal support team of 400 employees. He flew the A320, B727, B737, B757 and B767 during his career at Delta and is a former U.S. Air Force officer and F-15 fighter pilot.

The FAA is also dealing with such issues as how to integrate drones into the nation's airspace and modernizing air traffic control. (Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)