Sunday, December 27, 2020

Federal Aviation Administration Chief Had Helped Delta Air Lines Retaliate Against Whistleblower, Administrative Judge Rules

Carrier used psychological evaluation to ground, intimidate pilot, Labor Department ruling says

“In this case, the squeaky wheel did not get the grease.”
— Labor Department administrative law judge Scott Morris

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson spent more than a decade as head of Delta’s flight operations.

The Wall Street Journal 
By Andy Pasztor
Updated December 27, 2020 3:09 pm ET

A Labor Department ruling determined that before becoming head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Steve Dickson participated in efforts by Delta Air Lines Inc. management to wrongly use a psychiatric evaluation to retaliate against a pilot who raised safety concerns.

The lengthy decision by a department administrative law judge concluded that Mr. Dickson, as Delta’s senior vice president of flight operations, knew about and approved punitive moves against veteran co-pilot Karlene Petitt, who was deemed unfit to fly in December 2016 after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The diagnosis eventually was reversed and she resumed flying.

The ruling supported Ms. Petitt’s claims that she was singled out for special scrutiny to try to keep her quiet about safety issues. Scott Morris, the judge who presided over the long-running litigation, determined that Delta punished and discriminated against a federally protected whistleblower without any evidence indicating her “performance as a pilot was deficient in any way.” According to the decision, “not a single witness questioned her flying acumen.”

The ruling says that “in this case, the squeaky wheel did not get the grease.” Instead, “it got unlawfully discriminated against in the form of a career defining” mental-health evaluation. Ms. Petitt has four decades of flying experience and a doctorate in aviation safety. Many inside Delta saw her safety concerns and warnings as valid and told her to brief managers about them, according to the decision, but simultaneously other company officials identified her as a candidate for psychiatric evaluation.

Issued before Christmas, the ruling contains strong criticism of Delta’s safety culture and more broadly warns against management’s use of compulsory psychological assessments “for the purposes of obtaining blind compliance by its pilots.”

A Delta spokesman said the carrier plans to appeal. In an email, the company also said it denies Ms. Petitt was retaliated against for raising safety issues, adding “we took her safety concerns seriously and carefully investigated them.” Without elaborating on specifics in the decision, Delta said “it has zero tolerance for retaliation in any form,” encourages voluntary safety reporting by employees and provides “multiple ways for employees to do so.”

Mr. Dickson’s involvement with Ms. Petitt and her case emerged as a major controversy during his confirmation in July 2019. He wasn’t personally named as a target of the litigation.

Speaking for the FAA administrator, an agency spokesman said Mr. Dickson had only one meeting with Ms. Petitt while he was at Delta, and instead allowed other company officials to handle her complaints and subsequent referral for evaluation. The spokesman pointed to what Mr. Dickson told the Senate Commerce Committee during his 2019 confirmation hearings, including that there were “legitimate questions about her fitness to fly” and that Delta’s reliance on psychiatric evaluations was nonpunitive and nondiscriminatory.

During his tenure of more than a decade as head of Delta’s flight operations before retiring and moving to the FAA, Mr. Dickson told lawmakers, individual pilot matters were handled by an experienced team, “and I had very little involvement in individual cases.” He also told the panel he had provided direction “that the appropriate follow-up actions were completed and that the contractual processes were followed.”

The psychiatrist who gave the initial diagnosis, which Delta paid for, years later was forced by Illinois regulators to stop practicing medicine partly due to improprieties involving commercial-pilot screening for the carrier. Under contract provisions between Delta and its pilots union, Ms. Petitt was referred to doctors from the Mayo Clinic and elsewhere for subsequent evaluations. She and Delta shared the cost of those follow-up reviews, both of which repudiated the original findings.

In reaching his diagnosis, the first psychiatrist didn’t reference any letters of support for Ms. Petitt and, according to the ruling, he didn’t interview anyone about Ms. Petitt, not even the doctor who over the years approved her to retain a commercial pilot’s license. That initial diagnosis also found her experiences years earlier—going to night school while helping her husband’s business and also raising three children under the age of three—suggested mania.

Ms. Petitt was restored to flying status after nearly two years and she is currently a first officer on wide-body Airbus A330 jets. But the judge agreed that the episode exacted a “severe emotional toll” on the pilot. Ms. Petitt filed suit under an aviation-whistleblower statute, alleging she sustained financial damages and a hit to her professional reputation. The judge awarded her $500,000 in compensatory damages, along with back pay and other financial benefits. The decision also requires Delta to send each of its pilots a copy of the final order to deter similar management transgressions, according to the judge, who called publicizing his order “possibly embarrassing, but not onerous.”

The ruling described Ms. Petitt’s safety concerns as “prudent and reasonable,” including allegations such as chronic pilot fatigue, inadequate pilot training, falsification of training records and lack of confidence by some pilots to manually fly certain highly automated jetliner models.

In his deposition in the litigation, Mr. Dickson said Delta “sought the assistance of an outside auditor” to look into what he recalled were Ms. Petitt’s legitimate safety concerns, prior to the company sending her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

The ruling calls Mr. Dickson’s testimony in the case vague, evasive and “less than credible.” The judge wrote that Mr. Dickson’s internal company emails highlighted that Delta’s “much touted ‘open door policy’ ” for safety complaints “was not as open as portrayed” by the company. The FAA spokesman declined to comment on that point.

Ms. Petitt’s lawyer, Lee Seham, said his client declined to comment due to fear of possible company reprisal. Mr. Seham said the case record shows that high-ranking current and former Delta safety officials, including Mr. Dickson, failed to specify how they looked into Ms. Petitt’s underlying safety concerns.


  1. "When she reported safety concerns to Dickson and others at the airline, Petitt said her bosses were apathetic. Dickson, she testified was known to boast, “If there was a better way, we’d already be doing it.”

    After nine days of testimony, Judge Scott Morris found the information against Dickson’s flight operations department so disturbing he urged the airline and Petitt to settle.

    You must decide if “you want all this laundry out there,” Judge Morris told the parties on the last day of the trial, after hearing others confirm hazard reporting was likely to be dismissed.

    Patrick Harney, a 33-year pilot with the airline and a union representative said he wrote to management three times because pilots were repeatedly failing to set flaps properly, the result he said of sloppy training.

    “It’s not a flaps problem it’s a rushing problem,” Capt. Harney said he told his bosses.

    Judge Morris asked him to explain the significance of flap settings.

    “Without the right flaps, you’re going to die,” Harney replied.

    Nevertheless, Harney said he never saw the problem addressed. “It’s very serious, it’s deadly serious, and that’s why I took it serious (sic) and wrote the letter, and followed up with a second and a third.”

    This and other eyebrow-raising testimony is part of the suit Petitt, a pilot with 40 years of flying experience, has brought against her employer." 2

    1. During the trial, it emerged that Delta had paid Dr Altman $73,000 to conduct the psychiatric evaluation. Ms Petitt had sought a second opinion at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. The Mayo clinic totally debunked Altman’s diagnosis.

      In way of comparison, it was disclosed that Ms Petitt paid only $3,200 in medical fees. Delta Airlines was unable to explain the financial discrepancy between the two examinations.

      The Judgement stated it: ‘was not alone in seeing through the facile tactics used by Respondent {Delta Airlines} in this case.’ Dr Steinkraus of the Mayo Clinic commented on the weaponization of the medical evaluation process. He stated:

      ‘the evidence does not support presence of a psychiatric diagnosis but does support an organizational/corporate effort to remove this pilot from the rolls.’ @

  2. This is why I won't be an airline pilot in spite of having the hours. Checkrides or "medical" scrutiny are weapons used to eliminate the undesirable with no due process or recourse, forcing people to resign before they are laid off. In the tech industry the same is done when an employee is put "on probation" but even if they make it through the gruesome tasks assigned to them somehow they can be fired at will if they are find inadequate the next time around so best to also resign.
    The best in life is work for yourself, invest in yourself. Be a freelance CFI or start your own air taxi for example and not depend on working for a salary. The road is harsh, gruesome, exhausting but unlike fast food that tastes good and kills you in the end it is like healthy food that makes you grow and be lean and fit.

    1. Well put sir! I’ve been a pilot for 45 years and I’ve flown professionally for roughly 20 of that. I’m well educated and highly experienced and I get very tired of being treated as a glorified bus driver. The mantra seems to be “shut up and fly”. I’ve flown for some wonderful companies and some truly horrible ones, I always end up right back here running my flight school full time. Not much glory but it is a labor of love and I do make a decent amount of money.

    2. what are the upfront and operating $$$ needs to be "a freelance CFI or start your own air taxi?"

    3. As I continue to think about this subject it seems to me that the industry perception is that pilots are grossly overpaid which is true - when everything goes well. When the weather and airplane are cooperative it is really big, easy money. But all the hours of training that I’ve undergone we’re not to teach me how to drive an airplane around, they were to teach me how to keep the passengers and crew alive when things go wrong. However most of us cruise through our careers with only minor problems, we get paid lots of money for, well, not much work. Perhaps management resents that? I just know that it really sucks to be looked down on by the people that you are working for and most of us take this job very seriously knowing that we maybe called upon any time to protect a plane full of people.

  3. What happens in the Aviation Community? It seems as a vapor cloud made of some kind of stupity mixed with recklessness has been inhaled during the last few years by some of the people in authority positions, e.g.: Boeing and its world record of 20 billion loss after the 'Max Affair', and now Delta.
    And, almost forgot, the chubby guy in the FAA has to go too, second Strike to FAA: Boeing, and now Delta
    Wasn't it clever to hear what employees have to say, and improve operations (man and these are qualified employees 1500 hours before get a copilot seat!), instead of paying dozens of thousand of dollars to declare crazy a whitleblower, besting the China Governement of silencing diverging voices (Is that an 'American' behavoir?).
    I do not know why, but this is smelling like the BP, Halliburton and Deepwater Horizon drilling platform Snafu.
    And worst: They are appealing!
    If the Board of Delta is responsible even in a small measure has to give the boot to all the Executives, down from the CEO/President, just as it happened in Boeing, before they kill somebody.
    It seems that Politicians, Diapers and Executives are to be changed periodically, and for very same reasons.

  4. He needs to be gone from the FAA.... whistleblowers are essential to safety.

  5. "going to night school while helping her husband’s business and also raising three children under the age of three—suggested mania"

    Wow, is this 2020 or 1950? Dickson needs to go.

  6. Self serving politician with pre-existing conditions, causing a financial drain on our health system.