Tribunal Rules Delta ‘Retaliated’ Against Pilot For Safety Report


A Labor Department tribunal has awarded a Delta pilot $500,000 in a whistleblower case after determining the airline “weaponized” a bogus psychological assessment that grounded her for two years. Speaking for the panel, Administrative Law Judge Scott Morris further determined that the trip to the psychiatrist was retaliation for Karlene Pettit’s drafting a 43-page report detailing alleged safety issues at the airline, and its safety culture. Petitt has a doctorate in aviation safety. The psychiatrist retained by Delta determined that Petitt was bipolar and therefore disqualified from flying. Two subsequent examinations repudiated those findings and were critical of the original psychiatrist, who subsequently lost his license to practice for his involvement in another case that resulted in another pilot disqualification. Delta had already reported the diagnosis to the FAA medical section before the two later examinations were conducted.

In his decision, Morris determined that Petitt had proven that the use of Delta’s so-called “Section 15” was the culmination of a plot among high-level Delta executives to retaliate against the 40-year veteran pilot for bringing up the alleged safety issues. “To be clear, the Tribunal fervently believes, when properly used, the Section 15 process is a valuable and needed tool to protect Respondent (Delta), its pilots, the pilots union, but most importantly, the public,” Morris wrote. “However, it is improper for Respondent to weaponize this process for the purposes of obtaining blind compliance by its pilots due to fear that Respondent can ruin their career by such cavalier use of this tool of last resort.” In an unusual move, Morris also ordered the airline to publish the judgment where its pilots could see it to educate them on the value and importance of whistleblower protection in assuring that important issues of public interest can be raised.

Among those deposed for the hearing was FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, who was Delta’s VP of Flight Operations at the time. An FAA spokesman told AVweb Dickson met once with Petitt when she presented her report to him and chief pilot Jim Graham. ”The matter was handled by a cross-divisional team, as were hundreds of other disciplinary proceedings,” the spokesman said. He referred AVweb to Dickson’s testimony at his Senate confirmation hearing where the Petitt case was raised. In that testimony, Dickson also said that he believed the decision to invoke Section 15 was justified by “a credible report about statements the pilot made to company officials and behavior she exhibited, which raised legitimate questions about her fitness to fly.”

Petitt had asked for $30 million in compensatory damages but the tribunal rejected the claim because it viewed the claim as a bid to claim punitive damages, which the tribunal cannot award. The $500,000 award was higher than most cases of this nature but Morris said the emotional and reputation harm endured by Petitt was unusually damaging to her. She was also awarded back pay and other compensation for the time she was grounded. Petitt did not respond to AVweb’s request for comment.

Delta also did not respond to AVweb but told The Wall Street Journal it plans to appeal the decision and denies it retaliated against Petitt with the psychiatric assessment. It said it encourages voluntary reporting of safety issues by employees and has “zero tolerance for retaliation in any form.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. More often than not, political hacks from some industry cesspool become FAA Administrator. Dickson is obviously no exception.

  2. It is a shame that all too often brown noser’s always seem to get into power in all our public organizations leading to public distrust in government entities.

  3. With Biden’s pick of Buttigieg as head of Transportation I can only imagine who will be proffered as FAA head. Doubt that any aviation experience will be on the requirements list. Possibly an actress that once played a role of a person that flew in a plane? LOL.

    • Dickson has the job by law for five years unless he pulls a “Babbitt.” Biden cannot remove Dickson during that five year period without cause. I’m guessing that Dickson has about three years remaining of that five year protection.

    • After the carnage the present administration has wrought upon this land, you sir, have no standing to criticize which has not yet taken place in the next administration.

      • Going over the top with an non sequitur is not a good look. You might explain how Mr. Buttigieg is a good choice for head of transportation?

        • As compared to Moscow Mitch’s wife? Elaine Chao was a vocal anti labor board member at NWA during the 98 pilot lockout.

  4. The use of “psychiatric evaluations” which are supposed to be objective but long have an element interpretability by the evaluator has been used to dispose of “troublesome” employees with some frequency, and this appears to be another example of this. Highly educated, driven people and scientists see problems and then offer solutions and are frequently oblivious to the political consequences until it is too late. A colleague of mine faced exactly this situation (pilot, non-professional, management at an FBO) when he had to discipline a flight instructor. The very charismatic flight instructor then proceeded to spread rumors that the manager was an incompetent pilot, suffered from depression, and was a danger to everyone in the sky and told the FAA so. He reported that the manager was psychologically unfit to fly and found a psychiatrist who had never evaluated the manager to agree with him and told the FAA so. The manager spent more than 5 years defending his medical, the FAA demanded he turn over his non-existent psych records. While this person was successful in defending his medical, it could have easily gone the other way.

    The medical profession has likewise used “company psychiatrists” to “discipline” whistleblowers who are fine and competent professionals, who are highly vulnerable at various aspects of their careers. The best advise I gave one such professional was to begin the psych eval with the questions: Who pays your bill? Who has access to your evaluation and clinic notes? and to Whom are you accountable? The answer will invariably be, the employer, the employer’s personnel office and to the company. Once that is on the record, most psychiatrists will be at least wary of crossing the professional line to give the company what it wants and the record preamble will be clear of the circumstances and tenor of the evaluation, should an action like Captain Pettit’s become necessary. While the $500k award is attention getting, the airline pays half that on a daily round trip transcontinental flight in fuel alone. I note the psychiatrist in question has faced his licensing board and has been disciplined. Medical board disciplinary actions are public knowledge, perhaps he/she should have been named to let readers decide for themselves, as public safety was the central aspect of the matter.

    • Quoting you in part:

      “He reported that the manager was psychologically unfit to fly and found a psychiatrist who had never evaluated the manager to agree with him and told the FAA so.”

      It is against the ethics of psychiatry to render an opinion on anyone’s mental health without first having personally evaluated them in a clinical environment. FAA medical professionals are well aware of this.

  5. i am glad she got compensated. She didn’t get compensated nearly enough for what she most likely endured.
    Not a surprise at all that happened to her, and probably many, many others.
    I, too have voiced safety concerns about an airline and was summarily fired on the spot.
    After lengthy appeals to OSHA, FAA and NTSB, I have been railroaded by the FAA and my career is forever ruined. I had to quit aviation career because of this, more than 15 career years wasted, and I am now left with nothing.

    • Surely there’s more to the story than that. Any details on the safety issues in question? What was the history of your complaints? What reason did the airline give for neing “summarily fired on the spot”?

  6. Good grief, Delta got off light here. And they’re appealing? They should take this pitiful little judgment and run away with it!

    It seems clear Delta hired a hack psychiatrist to give them the diagnosis they needed to crush this pilot. Is Delta protected from an ordinary civil suit to get the punitive damages they so richly deserves to pay?

  7. I’m a little surprised that ALPA was not involved in this. They have a safety committee that works with the company when they receive safety concerns. In most cases a pilot would file a safety debrief with the union and the union would discuss it with the Delta flight department. Seems like there might be more to this story.

    • As Donald comments, there is almost certainly much more information out there – information we will never hear – that would allow a better evaluation of the story.

      In this tale, what muddles the waters is the question of mental health. Diagnosis of an abnormal mental condition is inherently subjective and when the condition is borderline it’s common to have opposing conclusions. Bipolar in particular is particularly susceptible to the problem because everyone has mood swings to some degree, ranging from barely detectable to pronounced. How much is too much in an airline pilot versus, say, an engineer?

  8. Lets not forget that: “Petitt has a doctorate in aviation safety.”, which would normally make her an asset for such a company. That as a fact and the way they tried to silence her is just outright wrong. This incidence together with the case where an employee from the Ground team, a manager literally stalked a couple throughout the Terminal on a layover and personally saw through to it that she and her husband were thrown off the plane and additionally punished by taking all passengers off the plane, to clean the inside again all over is so ridiculous. I will see to it that I will certainly avoid Delta by all means if I can avoid them. In these times we as the people need to hold together instead of allowing them do create division, which is the purpose behind all of this. Common sense ist lost when fear is the driving factor.

  9. As a clinical psychologist, I am of the opinion that psychiatrists, who typically only rely upon an interview, are not equipped to determine anything but gross signs of mental disorder and/or the typical cases of depression, anxiety, and bipolar and psychotic disorders. Actually, any experienced mental health therapist can do so as well. However, it is really only a forensic psychologist who utilizes standardized tests, that can render am accurate analysis. Just saying…

  10. It is well known that Delta used quack psychologists in their hiring department for years. Most Delta pilots have memories of the psych eval they went through with a doctor who eventually took his own life. I wonder what the Delta ALPA central air safety committee did concerning the safety issues Pettit brought forth. What were the issues?