WASHINGTON — The Senate, on party lines on Wednesday, confirmed Stephen Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines executive, to head the Federal Aviation Administration for a five-year term, giving permanent leadership to an agency embattled over the deadly crashes of two Boeing jets.
The 52-to-40 vote was unusually divided for the agency, which has not had permanent leadership for more than a year and a half. That, in part, reflected concerns from some Senate Democrats about Mr. Dickson’s involvement in a whistle-blower case at Delta. The partisan vote contrasted with the Senate’s 90-to-8 vote on Tuesday to confirm Mark T. Esper as secretary of defense.
“We’ve never had a partisan vote on an F.A.A. nominee in the past, and I believe that we should have found consensus on a nominee for the F.A.A., given all of the concerns the public has about flying safety,” said Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Mr. Dickson’s nomination was the first to advance out of the committee on party lines.
The confirmation of Mr. Dickson — who retired from Delta last fall after 27 years of flying commercial routes and overseeing regulatory compliance, safety and pilot training — comes at a time of increasing pressure on the aviation agency.
Questions remain about the agency’s approval of the Boeing 737 Max and limited training procedures for the jet, which was involved in two deadly crashes in about five months. As head of the agency, Mr. Dickson will oversee Boeing’s rehabilitation of the 737 Max, which remains grounded, as well as the agency’s response to public criticism over the jet.
Republicans and Trump administration officials argued that Mr. Dickson — a former Air Force officer, Air Force Academy graduate and F-15 fighter pilot — had the appropriate credentials to oversee the agency. Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the chairman of the committee that oversaw the nomination, said that he expected Mr. Dickson would “provide direction for the F.A.A. at this crucial time.”
“Captain Dickson is highly qualified to lead the F.A.A.,” Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary, said in a statement. “Safety is the department’s No. 1 priority, and he is committed to ensuring that the F.A.A.’s safety culture, and safety record, continue to lead the world.”
Seven Democrats — all running for president — were absent for the vote. Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, was also absent because he is recovering from four fractured ribs, but he indicated his support for Mr. Dickson.
“I applaud the Senate’s vote today and have full confidence in Captain Steve Dickson’s commitment to aviation safety,” Mr. Isakson said in a statement.
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