Dickson encouraged students to continue pursuing aviation and aerospace career paths because there are “a lot of great opportunities to get involved in aviation and a lot of great things going on.” The airline transport pilot told students that things are beginning to look up after an initial 95-percent decline in commercial air travel during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Dickson said the United States was likely experiencing “the most exciting period in aviation that we’ve had” since the “introduction of the jet engine, or pressurization.” He added that “we’re really just scratching the surface on unmanned systems” and predicted there would be significant advancements “within the next few years” that would lead to “really exciting developments.”
The administrator pointed out that the FAA has also become increasingly more adept at regulating airspace for commercial space travel as interest in the field continues to soar. He said the FAA uses spacecraft launch telemetry to monitor missions “in real time” from an FAA command center, and works “very closely with private firms” including SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others to “more surgically manage” the airspace rather than to close large chunks of the country’s airspace system during launches.
Participants planning for a future in aviation or the aerospace industry had questions about the return of air travel, and Dickson was candid about the numbers. He noted that general aviation operations were down during the height of the pandemic but “not as much as commercial airlines.” The administrator said there is a “pent-up demand for leisure travel,” and he predicted that “some volume will come back” in the coming months, especially if ticket prices remain depressed. He added that GA is currently swinging “up” when compared to a three-year average.
However, he cautioned that corporate and business travel could continue to suffer because of changes in the workplace that have since welcomed “virtual” meetings rather than face-to-face gatherings. “I think that business travel will be slower because corporate travel will be scrutinized further,” he explained. “There’s not going to be a substitute for person-to-person contact, ultimately, but it’s going to be some time before we see business travel” return to the numbers that were previously posted.
A peek into the administrator’s private life revealed that his days often begin before 6 a.m. with rounds of emails and meetings concerning technology, safety, airspace, and regulations—and often don’t end until well after dinnertime. Dickson’s 6 p.m. video chat with students followed a two-hour town hall on GA safety with AOPA, Textron Aviation, Signature Flight Support, and others.
He revealed that his favorite airplane to fly was the McDonnell Douglas F–15 Eagle, which was “the cream of the crop” when he flew it for the military, and “undefeated in air-to-air combat.” He also has a “soft spot in my heart for the Boeing 757” because “it was just a great-performing aircraft. The 757 and 767 were real game-changers because they flew transoceanic trips on two engines,” a feat that was previously unheard-of in 1982 when the pioneering two-crew jetliner with glass cockpits and a range of at least 3,200 nautical miles was introduced.