FAA chief helps Delta retaliate against whistleblowers, rules for administrative judges

According to a Labor Department ruling, before Steve Dickson became head of the Federal Aviation Administration, he participated in the efforts of Delta Air Lines Inc.

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the management erroneously uses a psychiatric evaluation to retaliate against a pilot for safety.

The lengthy decision by a judge of the administrative law division concluded that Mr. Dickson, as senior vice president of aviation operations at Delta, knew of and approved sanctions against veteran co-pilot Karlene Petitt, who was disqualified from flying in December 2016 after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The diagnosis was eventually reversed and she started flying again.

The verdict supports me. Petitt’s allegations that she was singled out for special investigation to try to keep her quiet about security issues. Scott Morris, the judge who led the lengthy lawsuit, ruled that Delta punished and discriminated against a federally protected whistleblower without any evidence to suggest that her “performance as a pilot is in any way lacking.” According to the ruling, “not a single witness questioned her flying skills.”

The verdict reads that “in this case, the squeaking wheel did not get the fat.” Instead, it’s being unlawfully discriminated against in the form of a career that determines the mental health assessment. Ms Petitt has four decades of flying experience and a doctorate in aviation safety. According to the decision, many people in Delta considered her safety issues and warnings valid and told her to notify managers about it, but at the same time, other company officials identified her as a candidate for psychiatric evaluation.

The ruling, issued before Christmas, strongly criticizes Delta’s safety culture and broadly warns against management’s use of mandatory psychological assessments “with the aim of gaining blind compliance by its pilots.”

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A Delta spokesman said the carrier plans to appeal. In an email, the company also said it was denied that Ms. Petitt retaliated for raising security issues, adding that “we have taken her safety concerns seriously and thoroughly investigated them.” Without elaborating on the details of the decision, Delta said “it has no retaliation in any form for retaliation”, encourages voluntary reporting by employees and offers “several ways employees can do so.”

Dickson’s involvement with Mrs. Petitt and her case appeared to be a major controversy during his confirmation in July 2019. He was not personally identified as a target for the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the agency spoke to the FAA administrator and said Mr. Dickson just had a meeting with Mrs. Petitt while he was at Delta, and instead allowed other company officials to handle her complaints and be referred for evaluation. The spokesman pointed out what Mr. Dickson told the Senate Commerce Committee during his 2019 confirmation hearings, among other things, that there were ‘legitimate questions about her suitability to fly’ and that Delta’s reliance on psychiatric evaluations was not punishable and non-discriminatory.

During his tenure as head of Delta’s aviation operations before retiring and moving to the FAA, Mr. Dickson told lawmakers that individual pilot matters were handled by an experienced team, “and I was very little involved in individual cases.” He also told the panel that he had given instructions “that the appropriate follow-up actions have been completed and that the contractual processes are being followed.”

The psychiatrist who gave the initial diagnosis, for which Delta paid, was forced years later by Illinois regulators to stop taking medication, in part because of improprieties the commercial pilot is investigating for the carrier. In terms of contract terms between Delta and its pilots’ union, Ms. Petitt referred to doctors at the Mayo Clinic and elsewhere for subsequent evaluations. She and Delta shared the cost of the follow-up assessments, both of which rejected the original findings.

“In this case, the squeaking wheel did not get the fat.”

– Scott Morris, Judge for Administrative Law of the Labor Department

In reaching his diagnosis, the first psychiatrist did not refer to any letters of support for me. Petitt, and according to the verdict, he did not question anyone about Mrs. Petitt does not, not even the doctor who has approved her to retain her over the years. a commercial flight license. That initial diagnosis had her experiences years before – going to night school while helping her husband’s business and also raising three children under the age of three – indicates mania.

Me. Petitt has been restored to flight status after almost two years and is currently a first officer on Airbus A330 aircraft. But the judge agreed that the episode took a ‘serious emotional toll’ on the pilot. Mrs. Petitt has filed a lawsuit under an aviation bell ringers law, claiming she suffered financial damages and tarnished her professional reputation. The judge awarded her $ 500,000 in compensatory damages, along with reimbursement and other financial benefits. According to the judge, who called the announcement of his order “as possibly embarrassing, but not onerous”, Delta should also send the copy of the final order to ward off similar offenses from the management.

The verdict has me. Petitt described safety issues as “prudent and reasonable”, including allegations such as chronic pilot fatigue, inadequate pilot training, falsification of training records and lack of confidence on the part of some pilots to allow certain highly automated aircraft models to fly manually.

In his statement in the lawsuit, Mr. Dickson said Delta “asked for the help of an external auditor” to look into what according to Petitt’s legal issues were about safety before the company sent her to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

The verdict mentions the testimony of mr. Dickson in the case vague, evasive and ‘less than credible’. The judge writes that Mr. Dickson’s internal email messages stress that Delta’s’ highly respected ‘open door policy’ for security complaints’ is not as open as portrayed ‘by the company. The FAA spokesman declined to comment on the point.

Lee Seham, attorney for Mrs. Petitt, said his client declined to comment due to fears of possible retaliation from the company. Mr. Seham said the record of the case shows that high-ranking current and former Delta security officials, including Mr. Dickson, could not specify how they were investigating Ms. Petitt’s underlying safety issues.

Write to Andy Pasztor by [email protected]

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