A Labor Department ruling determined that before becoming head of the Federal Aviation Administration,
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
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.
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.”
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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 this case, the squeaky wheel did not get the grease.’
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,
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.
Write to Andy Pasztor at [email protected]
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