The physician who came close to ending a Delta pilot’s 30-plus year flying career by diagnosing her with bipolar disorder has permanently surrendered his license to practice medicine in Illinois. Dr. David Altman was working for Delta in 2016 when he was assigned to determine if Karlene Petitt, 58, was fit to fly. Two other doctors said the diagnosis was erroneous. But the forced exam and Petitt’s near 2-year grounding associated with it is the subject of her whistleblower lawsuit against Delta. She claims her employer punished her for challenging the airline’s safety practices. A ruling in the case is pending.
Even before Petitt had heard of Dr. Altman, another Delta pilot involved in his own, unrelated dispute with Delta, filed a complaint against Altman with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. He was also ordered by Delta to submit to an exam by Dr. Altman. When Michael Protack balked at returning for more analysis with the doctor, Altman sent him a threatening letter, suggesting his lack of cooperation could result in a diagnosis that would put an end to Protack’s professional piloting career.
Protack and Petitt’s allegations against Dr. Altman, were combined, according to an email sent to Petitt by Jessica Pantoja from the Illinois regulator and led to the settlement that saw Altman give up his medical license. He is unlikely to be able to practice in any other state, according to his attorney, Scott Hammer, who said Altman is not interested in doing so.
“The case we had was defensible and we had top experts who were going to testify on his behalf. We were optimistic that if we tried the case we would have won,” Hammer told me, but he added that Altman “is looking to retire.”
Executives at the highest level of the airline were involved in the decision to send Petitt to Altman according to evidence in her case. In fact, the previously undisclosed role of former Delta senior vice president of flight operations, Steve Dickson, made headlines in 2019 during his Senate confirmation to lead the Federal Aviation Administration.
Dr. Altman was a key witness in Petitt’s whistleblower suit. He defended his diagnosis that Petitt was bipolar. He pointed out that during her early career, she was attending school, helping with her husband’s business and caring for her three young children, a situation which Dr. Altman found notably unusual.
“I don’t know any woman who could do that. I don’t know any woman with three under three that isn’t exhausted, let alone going to school,” Dr. Altman said explaining these were signs of mania. “So, this, to me, was — oh, I asked her — and she was nursing — I asked her and she was very upset about this — I asked: ‘Did you express the milk,’ because that’s going to take more time.”
Dr. Altman said that while Petitt acknowledged it was difficult, he said it was puzzling that she did not recognize her energy levels were not normal or “close the loop and say, ‘there’s something unusual about this.'”
Lest the Labor Department judge give credence to Dr. Altman’s testimony, Petitt’s lawyer, Lee Seham earlier this week asked Labor Department Administrative Law Judge Scott Morris to admit into the court record, the fact that Dr. Altman was a practicing doctor no longer.
As long ago as last summer, Judge Morris seemed leaning towards Petitt’s opinion that Delta had it out for her. He urged lawyers on both sides to settle the dispute rather than leave the decision to him.
“It’s not pretty,” Morris said of the case. “And I am really troubled by some of these exhibits, about how this referral came to fruition.”
One can only assume the latest twist in the story will have him shaking his head once again. Perhaps he will even note the irony that the doctor whose diagnosis seemed likely to end Karlene Petitt’s flying career has instead, brought the curtain down on his own.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.