FAA Administrator Stephen M. Dickson attended 12 different schools as his family moved to posts across the United States and around the world for his father’s career as a US Air Force pilot. After graduating from the US Air Force Academy, Dickson, too, flew for the Air Force. He moved to Delta Air Lines in 1991 to work as a line pilot and also earned a law degree along the way. After various stints in Delta management, including as chief pilot and senior VP of flight operations, Dickson retired … for a brief minute before being asked by US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to head the FAA. He was sworn in as the top US aviation official on Aug. 12, 2019.
ROTOR Editor Gina Kvitkovich sat down with Dickson in late January during his visit to HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 in Anaheim, California. This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
ROTOR: What drew you to aviation and what made you stay?
Steve Dickson: It’s just a passion—it’s not like work to me. And aviation is something where you’re always learning and discovering new or better ways to do things.
Once I graduated from the academy, I wanted to fly and serve my country. That was another thing that was attractive about joining the FAA—it was a chance for things to come full circle and give something back to my country. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success in my business career; serving as FAA administrator was a chance for me to bring some of that perspective and be part of a team.
Do you still fly?
Not currently. I’ve got some other things I’m focused on right now, but I do plan to get qualified on the FAA’s aircraft. It’s always been important to me to lead by example.
One way the FAA is different from some other transportation authorities is that it has an operational mission. I think it’s important for the people at the FAA to see that their leader is out there with them and seeing the operation from the same perspective that they are.
I’m looking forward to rounding out my experience with GA [general aviation]. It actually has some similarities to military flying, where you’re kind of dispatching yourself, doing your own flight planning, and checking your own weather. With the pace of operations in a commercial airline environment, that’s all being done by the ops center.
What are your priorities as FAA administrator?
I came into the agency with a 90-day plan that I laid out on the first day for Secretary Chao, which of course falls closely in line with her overall transportation strategy. The agency is in the process of developing our five-year strategic plan, and I’ve got five strategy pillars.
The first and most important one, not surprisingly, is safety. And that’s safety as both a regulator and an operator of the airspace. We have to be able to do both.
The second pillar is global leadership. The United States has a responsibility to lead in safety and operations and in all aspects of commercial aviation around the world. In my observation, even before I arrived at the agency, when the FAA shows up somewhere, stakeholders really listen to what the FAA has to say. That’s not always true with other regulatory authorities, even fairly mature ones.
Over the years, the FAA has done more than any other regulatory authority to promote aviation safety around the world. But we do it through openness. With the United States being an open society and an open people in general, we’re very inclusive and collaborative by nature. Developing authorities around the world have really benefited from the mentoring and support the FAA has provided over the years, sometimes through ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organization], other times through bilateral relationships, and other times through regional relationships. There’s an important mentoring role we can play.
The third pillar is operational excellence. This is really about operationalizing NextGen. We must make sure that we continue to invest in our infrastructure and do the needed physical modifications and modernization of the system—but we also need to make sure we’re getting operational benefits out of these investments.
The fourth pillar is innovation. This is where our approach to airspace integration is so important. Look at the commercial space sector. I had no idea, when I came into the agency, how involved the FAA is in licensing commercial space operations. We have 11 space ports around the country. A decade ago, we would have three or four commercial launches a year. This year, we’re close to 50 launches.
The FAA can’t continue to block off large swaths of airspace for these launches as we’ve done historically, so we’re developing technology to manage airspace more surgically, more dynamically. We’re developing systems so we can actually ingest the trajectory data and the predictive data off of the planned launches and reentries. Eventually, they’ll be displayed on the controller’s scopes so that we can manage operations much more dynamically.
This is really the most exciting period in aviation history, probably back to, I would say, the advent of the jet engine or maybe even the DC-3. That’s because of the innovation we see on the HAI HELI-EXPO show floor. You’re talking about fly-by-wire helicopters, developments with synthetic vision, and the rule-making we’re having to do around UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] and commercial space to enable all of these different capabilities to operate in the same airspace. It’s extremely exciting.
The final strategy pillar is about people. When it comes to recruiting and training, there’s an internal aspect to it in terms of staffing the FAA, but there’s an industry side to it as well. We need to mentor young people to understand the opportunities that exist in our industry, not only within the agency but also in the private sector.
Actually, I just reviewed the candidates who had applied to be on the Women in Aviation advisory board that was mandated in the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill. We had about 200 submittals for 20 slots. There are many accomplished people and stakeholders who have applied, but we need to get some diversification in terms of age and experience, because there may be some knowledge about the best way to reach young people that somebody my age might not pick up on.
The FAA will also convene different stakeholder groups and see where the opportunities are to promote aviation. There are a lot of good things happening around the industry, but they’re kind of piecemeal and fragmented. I think there’s a way we can coordinate our efforts effectively.
There are so many different ways into aviation now that didn’t exist years ago. A lot of what we need to do is get the message out about these opportunities to groups who may not be familiar with aviation. For many people, if they’ve never had a connection to aviation or no one in their family has been in aviation, they just aren’t aware of it.
As far as my strategy for the FAA workforce goes, the agency has to work to more systematically allow our people to have satisfying careers and ensure they have a broad perspective of the entire agency. My experience in large technical organizations like an airline or the military is that people who have subject-matter expertise in a particular technical discipline tend to want to matriculate and be promoted within that discipline. But if they haven’t had any exposure to the rest of the business or the rest of the enterprise, it can be challenging to find your best leaders.
The best engineer or the best mechanic or the best pilot may not actually be the best leader for the organization.
We’ve got to systematically give folks the support and programs to be able to broaden as they’re promoted throughout their careers. We’re going to be doing some things internally, as well, to make our employee development more robust, so that we’re not just looking within our own technical disciplines for leaders.
Where are the opportunities to improve GA safety?
That’s something I’m looking forward to working on with Jim [Viola, HAI president and CEO,] because I know he’s got a lot of experience in that area. [Viola was head of GA safety assurance for the FAA before he moved to HAI.]
I think the opportunity with GA safety is to continue to drill down on data. How do we develop a system that’s going to allow us to make the same kind of significant improvements we’ve seen in commercial airline travel?
It will require using the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee and the US Helicopter Safety Team and putting the same types of resources, focus, and attention on GA safety. Our vision is that no accident is acceptable. We don’t want anybody to ever get hurt or killed on an aircraft.
There’s always going to be operational pressure, because aviators tend to be very mission-oriented and -driven. Pilots are driven by a checklist, mechanics are driven by work cards—they want to get the task done. Well, sometimes you have to sit back and say, “OK; let’s set the parking brake,” or, “Let’s land and live.”
Let’s do whatever we need to do to say, “This is probably not a good idea. Let’s stop the operation, let’s let the weather pass, let’s talk about our game plan,” and then move forward from there.
We’ve got to be able to bring people together to have those kinds of conversations, but those conversations have to be rooted in data. We just need to figure out how to adapt the information we have to the GA environment so we can understand each other’s perspectives.
So the FAA will continue to focus on data as a key method of improving safety?
Another element of my innovation strategy is the digital transformation of the FAA so that we’re able to ingest and utilize data more effectively. We have a lot of data, but it’s compartmentalized and not easily combined and reshaped for different purposes.
Let’s look at the historical continuum of how the aviation industry has dealt with safety issues. The following example is focused on commercial airline operations, but I think it’s instructive.
When you think about commercial aviation safety up until probably the 1970s or 1980s, it was really the blame game. It was always pilot error or the engine caught fire or the weather was bad. You didn’t have the data to go in and look at root causes.
Then we moved toward more disciplined, post-accident investigations, where it was more of a forensic approach. It’s the way we investigate accidents now, where you go in and you really look at all aspects—the human factors, the machine, the operating environment, the training records, and whatever else. So we moved from the blame game to forensics.
Then we moved from forensics to a proactive approach, and that’s where we are now. We have voluntary safety reporting programs, and we have data from flight-data monitoring and flight operational quality assurance that’s streaming off of engines and airplanes. We have other types of employee reporting and agency audits.
Then you have a team sift and filter that data to figure out what’s important, what the threats are, and what changes need to be made. This approach does allow you to be more proactive, but it’s an analog process.
We’re moving to a world where the data sources talk to each other. Maybe you’re online looking at a new TV, and then later these pop-up ads for TVs show up. These commercial companies know a lot about you by analyzing the data they’ve collected about you.
But we don’t have the same kind of visibility into a pilot. For example, when you look at a pilot who’s being put into the operation that day, what is their readiness level for that day? We need to look at their schedule, their qualification, their checkrides. That’s the people data. Then there’s the data on the machine. Then what about the operating environment? What’s the mission, what’s the tempo, what’s the weather?
This information comes from very different data sources. But imagine if we could bring that in and combine it with some machine learning or artificial intelligence. So the question isn’t just, “Do I want that pilot?” It’s, “Do I want to pair a captain with less than 100 hours with a new-hire first officer flying their first ride into Midway, a place with high-tempo operations where the shorter runway can be challenging?”
That’s where you start to get into predictive analysis, where you look at the data to make a better-informed decision rather than reacting after the fact. You might say, “This mission meets the rules, but is that really a risk that we want to take on?” So you change the experience levels of the crew pairing, or you substitute a different equipment type, or you wait for the weather to clear, or you do whatever you can to reduce the risk. That’s what I’m pushing forward to.
Right now, there are a lot of data-driven processes within the FAA, but I want to bring all of that together into a common data lake. We can then use and manipulate that data for different purposes. For example, an aviation safety inspector’s personnel information is segregated from their training qualifications, even though it’s the same person. I want to bring all that together, because I may want to query it for different purposes. And that’s just one example.
You have to be able to translate the data into some kind of actionable information. And that’s the challenge.
What progress is being made on integrating UAS, or drones, into the National Airspace System?
The FAA has an excellent leader in Jay Merkle, who came from our Air Traffic Organization and is now overseeing our UAS integration team. He’s doing a good job of engaging stakeholders and bringing together the different lines of business within the FAA.
It’s a tall order to actually integrate UAS operations into the airspace system, but I think it’s the right strategy. Some stakeholders would rather see us establish certain routes or restrictions on UAS, but I think that would severely hamper the development of a technology that will be very beneficial to society.
But we’ve got to manage the integration through a logical process. So we’ve tried to use our existing regulatory structure to do that. The challenge has been to create a pilot program in which we can test certain business opportunities in certain applications so that when we actually do write the rules, we write them in the most beneficial way to be able to continue that development.
Right now, it’s hard to say what things are going to look like five years from now. Every time you think you’ve got a good idea of what the trajectory is going to be, there are new innovations out there and new opportunities. We want to be supportive, and we don’t want to cut off any of that innovation. At the same time, we have to get some things out there first, like remote ID, so we can have a broader scale beyond visual-line-of-sight operations and operations over people.
Not everyone agrees on how we’re approaching UAS integration. We’ve got to make sure we understand their perspectives, but they’ve got to understand that the FAA oversees a system. We can’t favor one part of the country or one constituency over another. There will have to be some compromises and some trade-offs.
There are entities, such as cities, communities, and our security or law enforcement partners, that have certain interests that we have to account for when we write rules. And we have certain societal considerations, like noise, privacy, and data, that we’ve got to consider when we make rules, even as the safety regulator.
Our tremendously diverse and dynamic NAS makes it more challenging to do that. In some places, there isn’t as much GA activity. But in the United States, we have a diverse, robust GA sector with lots of different types of operations and a large helicopter sector. These opportunities create a lot of complexity that has to be managed.
But that’s something to be cherished. It makes the US aviation system much more diverse and complicated than anywhere else in the world. That’s one reason I think the FAA is still, by a large margin, the leading aviation authority in the world, because it has to bring together all these disparate elements, and that’s exciting.
Getting back to the subject of UAS integration, it goes back to fundamental questions, such as who’s responsible for the US airspace. Well, the answer depends on what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about civil airspace, it’s the FAA. If you’re talking about defense, it’s NORAD [the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint US–Canadian organization that conducts aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning in the defense of North America] and USNORTHCOM [the US Northern Command, the US Department of Defense command dedicated to homeland defense].
The Department of Defense is an airspace user as well. The ADS-B mandate was a good example of that. We had to create some opportunities for the military to be able to operate in a way that civil aircraft wouldn’t be able to within the system—a military aircraft doesn’t always want to broadcast its location. We certainly have to take DOD’s needs into consideration when we write rules.
From the FAA’s perspective, how did the ADS-B Out equipage mandate go?
Thanks to a lot of work and a lot of preparation on the part of all segments of the industry, I think it’s been going well. The compliance has been probably as we expected. There have been a few little surprises here and there with some operators, mostly foreign operators, that we’re dealing with.
As you get into any situation where you’ve got different aircraft avionics configurations, there have been some difficulties because there’s not just the ADS-B transponder, there are also multimode receivers and other things that are part of the architecture.
There were difficulties with some manufacturers that showed up within the past year that are going to have to be remediated. But it’s a relatively small number of operators who were dealing with that.
Any surprises about the job of being FAA administrator?
Nothing happens as fast as you want it to happen. That’s certainly one observation.
I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the people whom I have the privilege of working with in the agency, and that’s something that I appreciate every day. I love being part of a team that’s trying every day to make a difference and improve a system that already operates at an extremely high level.
Finally, I get to learn more about different segments of the industry, some of which I was more familiar with than others. It’s been a great experience so far.