Delta Airlines ordered to settle with whistleblower

On October 21, 2022, Administrative Law Judge Scott R. Morris issued an order approving a final settlement of AIR 21 whistleblower claims brought by Delta Air Lines pilot Karlene Petitt against the carrier. In a prior order, dated June 6, 2022, Administrative Law Judge Scott R. Morris ordered Delta Air Lines to publish to its 13,500 pilots a legal decision finding that the airline had used compulsory psychiatric examination as a “weapon” against Karlene Petitt after she internally raised safety issues related to the airline’s flight operations.

Delta conceded, and the judge found, that the Complainant had presented to Delta Senior Vice President of Flight Operations Steven Dickson and Delta Vice President of Flight Operations Jim Graham a 46-page safety report that set forth in substantial detail her concerns relating a number of safety-related issues, including: 

– inadequate flight simulator training

– deviation from line check evaluation procedures

– pilot fatigue and associated violations of FAA-mandated flight and duty limitations

– the inability of senior pilots to hand-fly Delta aircraft

– errors in pilot training manuals

– falsification of training records

– flaws in Delta’s upset recovery training

Dickson was subsequently appointed by President Trump to the position of FAA Administrator – the highest position within the federal agency overseeing aviation safety.

As Judge Morris held:

“It is improper for [Delta] to weaponize this process for the purposes of obtaining blind compliance by its pilots due to fear that [Delta] can ruin their career by such cavalier use of this tool of last resort.”  [Decision at 98]. 

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Judge Morris quoted findings of Dr. Steinkraus of the Mayo Clinic with respect to the diagnosis of Ms. Petitt:

“This has been a puzzle for our group – the evidence does not support presence of a psychiatric diagnosis but does support an organizational/corporate effort to remove this pilot from the rolls.  … years ago in the military, it was not unusual for female pilots and air crew to be the target for such an effort.”

[Decision at 100].  The judge concluded: “The evidence of record substantiates Dr. Steinkraus’ take on the situation.”  [Id.].

Judge Morris awarded Ms. Petitt back pay, future pay at the “highest salary” paid to any pilot in her position, compensatory damages, and her attorneys’ fees and costs.  The United States Department of Labor Administrative Review Board (the appellate body reviewing whistleblower cases) found the compensatory damages awarded to Ms. Petitt to be two to five times the damages previously awarded in whistleblower cases and remanded the case to Judge Morris for further consideration.

Today’s order confirms that the AIR 21 whistleblower action has been resolved and that Ms. Petitt will receive compensation consistent with Judge Morris’ order, including payment of her attorneys’ fees.

Ms. Petitt’s attorney, Lee Seham, commented: “Obviously, you cannot run a safe airline when pilots are terrified that, if they raise FAA compliance issues, they may be subject to Soviet-style psychiatric examination.  Hopefully, Delta has learned its lesson.  Time will tell.”

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