Judge’s order: Pilot faced retaliation, Delta yet to comply

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FILE: A Boeing 757-2Q8 operated by Delta Airlines takes off from JFK Airport on August 24, 2019 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — When veteran pilot Karlene Pettit raised concerns about potential safety violations at Delta Air Lines, it almost cost her career.

Pettit fought Delta for years as a result. In a 2018 Department of Labor complaint, the pilot claimed that after she brought her safety concerns to light, she was subjected to psychological examinations and a faulty diagnosis that had the potential to end her career.

An administrative judge sided with Pettit, in part, in a December 2020 order, but Delta has yet to adhere to the judge’s ruling. The airline now has until July 6 to comply, according to a recent Labor Department order.

“They really stripped her of her identity,” said Pettit’s attorney, Lee Seham. “She was on disability leave but she never lost her job because every other psychiatrist who looked at this said, ‘Absolutely not. There is nothing wrong.'”

The situation began in 2016 when Pettit presented two captains — Steve Dickson and Jim Graham — with a 43-page report detailing multiple safety concerns. At the time, Graham and Dickson served as the vice president and senior vice president of flight operations, respectively.

Within Pettit’s report were claims of falsified training records, retaliatory line checks and disparate treatment of employees. The airline took the concerns to an outside auditor and eventually made changes to its policies and training manuals, according to Labor Department records.

Soon after Pettit raised her concerns, however, she was referred for a mandatory mental health evaluation, according to the December 2020 order.

David A. Altman, a doctor chosen by the airline to conduct Pettit’s evaluation, determined she was manic and suffered from bipolar disorder.

The diagnosis was based, in part, on the fact that Pettit raised three children, worked at her husband’s business and attended night school, according to Altman’s findings summarized in the December 2020 ruling.

At the time, the diagnosis could have put her job in jeopardy. The Federal Aviation Administration can preclude a pilot from flying if they’re determined not to be medically qualified. If Pettit were found to have such a condition, it wouldn’t only have applied to Delta — it could also prevent her from securing any future flying job.

Pettit later sought a panel of doctors from the Mayo Clinic, as well as a neutral medical examiner. Both determined she had no mental health issues.

“They soiled her reputation,” Seham said. “And she still has people whispering behind her back.”

As of Thursday, Pettit still flies for Delta. She declined to comment for this article. Her attorney cited ongoing litigation and fear of retaliation as the reason.

The judge ordered the airline to post the 2020 order where staff could see it and provide it to the airline’s pilots.

The deadline to comply is next week, and as of Thursday, they hadn’t done so. Instead, the company has asked to place the demand on hold while the case is on appeal. No decision has been issued on that request yet.

“None of the people who are the perpetrators of this have suffered any discipline,” Seham said.

Delta Air Lines declined NewsNation’s request for comment.

Dickson went on to become the head of the Federal Aviation Administration in August 2019 and stepped down in March 2022. Graham currently works as the senior vice president of Delta Connection and CEO of Endeavor Air for Delta Air Lines.

Altman permanently surrendered his license in August 2020, after he was disciplined “for using the threat of possibility of a diagnosis to discourage (a) patient from filing a complaint…”

“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,” Seham said. “If safety is Delta’s number-one priority, it needs to purge itself of the perpetrators, apologize to Ms. Petitt, and comply with the judge’s order…”

Pilots now are echoing some of Pettit’s original safety concerns as they demand for better work conditions.

Those with Southwest and Delta have complained publicly that pilot fatigue is on the rise.

Federal law limits flying time to 30 hours each week, requiring at least nine hours of rest between trips. But pilots say the disruptions to their schedules are wearing them out before they even hit those federal benchmarks, causing fatigue — something Pettit reported in 2016.

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