Steve Dickson has been around airplanes and flying almost as long as he has been walking. His father was a West Point graduate who flew as a U.S. Air Force pilot. He also has strong ties to the Atlanta legal community. His grandfather served in the Georgia National Guard and was an attorney. His great-grandfather was second graduate of Emory University of School of Law, back in 1907 before the current campus was even established. This family history undoubtedly influenced his career path. Dickson enrolled at Georgia State Law after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy and a career in the Air Force, where he flew F-15 fighter jets.
When he enrolled at the College of Law in the fall of 1994, Dickson was a line pilot for Delta Air Lines. He took classes four days per week. On Thursdays, he sometimes came to class in his uniform and headed to the airport afterward for a weekend of flying. Dickson says that the part-time program, flexible class schedule and the support of his peers made it possible.
“Something unique to the Georgia State University College of Law is the student body itself. In many cases the students have tremendous life experiences and have had a good deal of professional success,” said Dickson. “In my classes, I had doctors, dentists, accountants, military reserve officers, nurses, teachers and other successful professionals. There’s such a rich environment among the students that adds a real-world perspective to discussions and debates that might sometimes be lacking at a traditional law school.”
While here, he took a variety of classes and says he particularly enjoyed Patrick Wiseman’s Property class and Contracts with Paul Milich. Mary Radford’s Wills, Trusts and Estates class made him think about going into estate planning. However, the call to lead at Delta grew louder. He was asked to serve as Delta’s chief pilot and later as senior vice president of Flight Operations, serving in that capacity for the last 12 years of his 27-year career at the airline. In this role he oversaw over a million flights per year on six continents.
As administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, Dickson leads 45,000 employees and oversees 12 commercial spaceports for launches. The agency projects upwards of 50 launches this year. His priorities are global leadership, operational excellence, workforce development, innovation and, of course, safety.
Since he was sworn in on August 12, 2019, Dickson has been steering the agency through its efforts to safely return the Boeing 737 MAX to service, which was grounded after two crashes within six months. He says that those fundamental legal skills of arguing an issue from all sides have come in handy while making decisions on key safety, operational and people issues. In addition to ensuring public trust, Dickson is also focused on the next wave of aviation, which includes everything from drones to commercial space and supersonic flight. Dickson believes this is the most exciting time in aviation and aerospace in the U.S. in decades.
“We have a number of pilot programs through which we are working with industry partners and universities to test out drones for such applications as pipeline inspections, managing natural disasters and inspecting the FAA infrastructure,” he said.
“Flying is not like work to me, it’s a passion,” Dickson said. “Aviation makes our world smaller. It helps us understand different cultures and perspectives and gives us an appreciation for how fortunate we are to live in this country with the opportunities we have.”
Written by Kelundra Smith
Note: This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.