Delta "armed" sanity rules against a pilot.  She hit back

Delta “armed” sanity rules against a pilot. She hit back

On Christmas Eve 2016, Karlene Petitt, a long-haul international pilot for Delta Air Lines, received a devastating letter that threatened to end her career.

She had been grounded since March awaiting an assessment by a company doctor. The letter informed her of her diagnosis: she was mentally unfit for work and would no longer be allowed to fly.

Petitt had flown commercial jets for 35 years by then. She had raised three children, obtained a doctorate and two master’s degrees, and written a series of books, all while performing perfectly as a pilot.

In early November of the previous year, she had sent emails to her superiors criticizing Delta’s safety culture, initiating a series of interactions with them on safety issues.

Just six days later, Captain Jim Graham, then Delta’s vice president of flight operations, in an email to a pilot manager under him, made clear his intention to end the criticism of Petitt and to do so using a Kafkaesque process called “Section 15”, which would qualify her as too mentally unstable to be a pilot.

“We should determine if a Section 15 is appropriate,” Graham wrote. “If she cannot embrace and understand the reasons for our actions, it stands to reason that she may not be able to make the appropriate decisions for the safe operation of a flight.”

Hired by Delta for $74,000, Dr. David Altman produced the necessary diagnosis: In 2016, he assessed Petitt as having bipolar disorder.

Altman later testified that his diagnosis was partly motivated by Petitt’s accomplishments. The books, the degrees, the pilot’s job, all while raising children was “way beyond what any woman I’ve ever met could do” – and thus suggesting she was manic.

This extraordinary process put the full weight of a big business on Petitt. She was grounded. His career ended.

Still, she fought back. She resisted. And she won.

A “Soviet-style” psychiatric assessment

On Friday, a final settlement of Petitt’s case after a six-and-a-half-year legal battle sealed a complete loss for Delta and a rare example of complete vindication for a whistleblower.

Administrative Law Judge Scott Morris upheld his earlier order characterizing Delta’s use of the psychiatric diagnosis as an abuse of a mental assessment system in place for last resort cases.

Morris deemed it “unsuitable for [Delta] to weaponize this process in an effort to gain blind compliance from its pilots.

Delta must pay Petitt $500,000 in compensation plus years of legal fees.

Meanwhile, Altman in 2020 lost his medical license rather than face charges for his conduct.

Earlier, after Altman’s diagnosis fell apart, Delta was forced to reinstate Petitt.

Petitt’s attorney, Lee Seham, has represented 50 or 60 aviation industry whistleblowers during his career, but said he’s “never been in such an ugly war of attrition as with Delta. “.

“They lost in an administrative law judge, they lost in the appellate court, they were kicked out by the 11th Circuit,” he said. “They were ready to plead it to the death.”

Yet even after Altman was discredited and the case lost, Delta did not discipline any employees for deploying what Seham calls a “Soviet-style psychiatric examination” in an attempt to silence Petitt.

In response to a request for comment, Delta provided a statement that did not apologize or admit any wrongdoing.

“We have made a business decision to settle the matter rather than appeal a decision we disagreed with,” spokeswoman Catherine Morrow wrote in an email. “Delta’s fitness for duty testing process for pilots is in place to ensure safety and it is working.”

Seham finds this disturbing.

“I don’t know if the message to Delta pilots is anything other than, keep your mouth shut,” he said.

“That an airline can act with this level of impunity is troubling,” Seham added. “Because you can’t have a safe airline if the pilots are scared.”

Still, Petitt, who never gave in to the pressure, is back on international routes for Delta from Seattle.

Petitt’s report on Delta’s safety culture

Reached by phone Friday, Petitt said she could not comment due to a company ban on speaking to the media without permission while identified as a Delta employee.

Legal documents, including internal emails from Delta management revealed during the discovery, tell the story.

Petitt, 60, has a doctorate in aviation safety from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. In late 2015, she listened as Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in a keynote that it was the duty of all employees to speak up if they were aware of safety issues. These concerns were the subject of the doctorate. thesis she was working on.

Petitt began requesting meetings with his supervisors at Delta — including Graham and his boss, senior vice president of flight operations Steve Dickson, who was later named head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

In early 2016, Petitt presented a report to Dickson and Graham listing a series of breaches and including an analysis of some near-catastrophic incidents.

In March, Graham pulled the trigger on Section 15 and referred Petitt for a mental health evaluation of Altman, with whom the company had a long relationship. Petitt learned of the diagnosis by mail on Christmas Eve.

The Section 15 process then allows the accused pilot to select an independent medical examiner. If that doctor disagrees with the company doctor, they must agree on a neutral third examiner to decide the case.

Petitt hired a panel of nine physicians from the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Aerospace Medicine. They unanimously concluded that she did not have bipolar disorder, nor a psychiatric disorder.

Dr. Lawrence Steinkraus of the Mayo Clinic testified that Altman’s diagnosis was “a headache for our group.”

“The evidence does not support the presence of a psychiatric diagnosis, but does support an organizational/corporate effort to remove this pilot from the roles,” Steinkraus said.

When the neutral doctor supported the Mayo Clinic doctors, Petitt had to be reinstated.

Meanwhile, Petitt had filed a whistleblower complaint.

Significantly helping his case, Chicago-based Altman lost his medical license in 2020 rather than face charges from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation for his conduct of psychiatric exams in the case of two Delta pilots, including Petitt.

In December 2020, Judge Morris issued a scathing decision accusing Delta of “weaponizing” the Article 15 process to silence internal dissent. In it, he noted of Petitt’s ability as a pilot that “not a single witness questioned his keen sense of flight”.

He called Graham’s testimony “questionable credibility”.

Morris awarded Petitt the $500,000 compensation after considering “not only the damage to her reputation, the embarrassment and emotional hardship she endured over a long period of time, but also… the realistic loss of opportunities future promotions”.

He ordered Delta to prominently post copies of his decision at each pilot base, so that its more than 13,000 pilots would be informed.

Morris also ordered that Petitt be reinstated with the highest salary of any Delta co-pilot and be compensated for lost flight time.

Delta appealed but again lost. Friday’s settlement ended the case.

Always in flight

In 2019, the case raised political issues when President Donald Trump appointed Steve Dickson as FAA Administrator.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., met Petitt in person and found her credible, she said in an interview.

In a speech to the Senate during the confirmation hearing, Cantwell rallied fellow Democrats to oppose Dickson’s nomination expressly because of Petitt’s treatment.

“I ask my colleagues to decline this nomination today and help us create an environment where whistleblowers will be listened to,” Cantwell said then.

Dickson was nevertheless confirmed in the role, but with only 52 votes in the Senate.

He resigned as FAA Administrator in February, just over halfway through his term.

In October 2020, Graham was promoted to CEO of Endeavour, Delta’s regional carrier subsidiary and Senior Vice President of Delta Connection, the airline’s partnership with regional carriers Skywest and Republic Airways.

Petitt has been back for Delta since independent doctors finally discredited Altman’s diagnosis in 2017. In her current assignment, if you fly Delta from Seattle to London or Paris on an Airbus A330, she can be your pilot.

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