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Trump Nominates New Leader As FAA Is Under Fire After 2 Crashes

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The mission of the Federal Aviation Administration is to keep U.S. air travel safe. There is more urgency around that goal after two Boeing airplane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. There are questions about the safety mechanisms on the planes involved - the Boeing 737 Max jetliners - and whether or not the FAA knew about the potential flaws. The agency has been without a permanent leader for more than a year. Now President Trump has nominated his pick to run the FAA, a former Delta Air Lines official and former pilot Stephen Dickson. Joining us now, Andy Pasztor. He's a senior special writer for The Wall Street Journal who has been looking into Dickson and his nomination.

Thanks for being here, Andy.

ANDY PASZTOR: Thanks for having the chance to talk to your listeners.

MARTIN: What is Stephen Dickson's reputation?

PASZTOR: He has a long-standing history and an excellent reputation in terms of standard safety analysis. He's a pilot. He flew five different aircrafts for Delta. And he's been involved in some high-level safety work in the nation's capital. But he does have some huge challenges in front of him because he has to figure out - along with, I would say, help from Congress, maybe a lot of criticism from Congress and also from the Justice Department, which we reported has an investigation underway into the safety of these planes and also the Transportation Department's inspector general.

The issues he faces deal with, is - was there a systemic issue in the way the FAA oversaw and monitored the design and - and assembly of this aircraft? Was there an engineering overconfidence in what was done? Or was there a sense of complacency, which is what some experts are saying? - because the system in the U.S. has been so safe, really; over 250 million flights over a decade without a single U.S. passenger killed during that period. So he'll have to sort all of that out along with a bunch of other issues.

MARTIN: Yeah. But, really, the gist of the whole investigation is whether or not the FAA, perhaps, turned a blind eye to red flags in Boeing safety reports about these planes. So is a former airlines executive - Stephen Dickson in this case - an industry guy, is he the right person to hold the industry accountable?

PASZTOR: So this is the debate that we're going to hear on Capitol Hill. And critics will say that we should have an outsider. I think that the administration - and certainly his supporters on the Hill - will say that you need the expertise of somebody who knows the system to be able to improve the system and fix the system. And there is - of course, there's some truth to those - the latter arguments. But you also need someone with a vision and, perhaps, a willingness to shake things up if it turns out that there need to be major changes made.

MARTIN: You mentioned a couple interesting things I want to follow up on. First, the U.S. Department of Transportation asked for a formal audit of the FAA's approval of these Boeing planes. What more can you tell us about that?

PASZTOR: Well, that's right. The transportation secretary, yesterday, ordered this audit, which essentially means that investigators will be looking at exactly who did what, what information was shared, what information Boeing supplied and who actually oversaw this suspect stall-prevention system, whether it was signed off by a FAA official or whether it was signed off by Boeing officials acting in the place of the FAA, which is a practice that has gone on for many, many years. And once again, the safety of the system shows that it has worked tremendously well. But now we face these two huge problems, which have created, really, a firestorm in the industry and, as I said, a criminal investigation...

MARTIN: Right.

PASZTOR: ...Which is not - which is unheard of.

MARTIN: A criminal investigation launched by the Justice Department - Andy Pasztor is a reporter with The Wall Street Journal. He joined us on Skype. Andy, thank you so much for sharing your reporting on this. We appreciate it.

PASZTOR: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.