One has to wonder just how much longer Delta Air Lines wants to screw around with Karlene Petitt.
Last winter, after five years of testimony and legal arguments, Administrative Law Judge Scott Morris found the airline had mistreated the veteran pilot by retaliating against her when she reported safety violations. In the judge’s word, the airline “weaponized” its right to order pilots to undergo psychiatric examination by sending Petitt to a company-selected psychiatrist who gave her a career-ending diagnosis that was not accurate.
There’s a lot to unpack in the case, but for purposes of Delta’s latest shenanigan, let’s just say that when Judge Morris told the airline in December 2020 it must notify its 13-thousand pilots of its misbehavior, he likely expected obedience and perhaps some sort of contrition. He got neither.
Instead, Delta stalled. Deadlines came and went.
But late Monday, 21 months after ordering the airline to spread the word of its deeds to pilots, Delta finally hit the send button. The email stunned Petitt and her lawyer with its Sorry/Not Sorry tone.
Rather than contrition, the airline “disputes the legal and factual merits of this decision.” Disagreeing with a court ruling is not uncommon but it doesn’t undo it, legally speaking. According to Petitt’s attorney Lee Seham, the ruling had already been appealed and upheld. The only issue remaining unresolved is how much money Petitt will receive.
“Delta is engaging in deliberate deception,” said Seham, who has spent years representing Petitt in her whistleblower case before the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board. Delta, he said, “mischaracterized what happened and subverted the objective which was that Delta admit Petitt was wronged,” Seham said. “She is sane. She is competent and Delta did a bad thing.”
Many pilots were upset at the facts that emerged during the whistleblower case.
“Unless you’ve been hired recently, everyone knows everything about it,” one Delta pilot who did not want their name used, told me. “It was a big case at the time.”
The false determination that Petitt was bipolar kept her out of the cockpit for two years and, she said, created a hostile atmosphere when the diagnosis was successfully overturned and she finally did return to work.
Delta’s goal according to the judge was to obtain “blind compliance by its pilots” by instilling in them a fear that the airline had the power to ruin their careers. This is why he ordered Delta to share the final ruling in the case with those pilots.
Instead, Delta insists the outcome of the case is still in doubt without explaining that it is only compensation that remains unresolved. This is the issue that has been “vacated”. In a just-filed appeal to the judge, Seham argues that Delta’s email has intentionally blurred the issue for pilots.
“My impression is Delta’s deliberately trying to downplay it,” a pilot told me echoing comments appearing on social media.
Delta officials declined to be interviewed. Several pilots did agree to share their impressions with me, however.
“To say ‘I’m sorry’ means they’re admitting fault and they don’t want to do that,” one said. Another, who is familiar with the case but who also asked not to be identified said that he believed the airline’s leaders genuinely care about employees and was mystified at their intransigence on Karlene Petitt.
“There’s no good explanation for it,” he told me at first, then paused to suggest, “They don’t think they did anything wrong. Even if it is good for the company, even if it means bad press, they don’t think they did anything wrong and that’s something that won’t let them give in.”
For background on this case, click on the links below.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.