On Christmas Eve 2016, Karlene Petitt, an international long-haul pilot for Delta Air Lines, received a devastating letter that threatened to end her career.
She had been grounded since March pending an evaluation by a company-assigned doctor. The letter informed her of his diagnosis: She was mentally unfit for duty and would not be permitted to fly again.
Petitt had then been flying commercial jets for 35 years. She’d raised three children, earned a doctorate and two master’s degrees and wrote a series of books, all while performing perfectly as a pilot.
In early November of the previous year, she had sent emails to her superiors criticizing Delta’s safety culture, initiating a series of interactions with them about safety issues.
Just six days later, captain Jim Graham, then Delta’s vice president of flight operations, in an email to a pilot manager under him, indicated clearly his intention to put a stop to Petitt’s critique and to do so using a Kafkaesque process called a “Section 15,” which would label her too mentally unstable to be a pilot.
“We should consider whether a Section 15 is appropriate,” Graham wrote. “If she cannot embrace and understand the reasons behind our actions, it stands to reason she might not be able to make appropriate decisions for the safe operation of a flight.”
Hired by Delta for $74,000, Dr. David Altman produced the necessary diagnosis: In 2016, he evaluated Petitt as having bipolar disorder.
Altman later testified that his diagnosis was driven in part by Petitt’s accomplishments. The books, the degrees, the piloting job, all while raising kids, it was “well beyond what any woman I’ve ever met could do” — and therefore suggestive that she was manic.
This extraordinary process brought the full weight of a big corporation to bear on Petitt. She was grounded. Her career looked over.
Yet she fought back. She resisted. And she won.
A “Soviet-style” psychiatric evaluation
Friday, a final settlement of Petitt’s case after a six-and-a-half-year legal battle sealed a comprehensive loss for Delta and a rare instance of complete vindication for a whistleblower.
Administrative Law Judge Scott Morris upheld his earlier order characterizing Delta’s use of the psychiatric diagnosis as an abuse of a mental evaluation system in place for cases of last resort.
Morris ruled it “improper for [Delta] to weaponize this process for the purposes of obtaining blind compliance by its pilots.”
Delta must pay Petitt $500,000 as compensation plus years of legal fees.
Meanwhile, Altman in 2020 forfeited his medical license rather than face charges over his conduct.
Earlier, after Altman’s diagnosis fell apart, Delta was forced to reinstate Petitt.
Petitt’s attorney, Lee Seham, has represented 50 or 60 aviation industry whistleblowers in his career but said he’s “never before been in such an ugly war of attrition as with Delta.”
“They lost before an administrative law judge, they lost before the appellate body, they got thrown out by the 11th Circuit,” he said. “They were willing to litigate it to the death.”
Yet even after Altman’s discrediting and loss of the case, Delta didn’t discipline any employees for deploying what Seham calls a “Soviet-style psychiatric examination” to try to silence Petitt.
In response to a request for comment, Delta provided a statement that made no apology and admitted no wrongdoing.
“We made a business decision to settle the matter rather than appeal a decision that we disagreed with,” spokesperson Catherine Morrow wrote in an email. “Delta’s fitness for duty testing process for pilots is in place to ensure safety and it works.”
Seham finds that worrisome.
“I don’t know that the message to the Delta pilots is anything other than, keep your mouth shut,” he said.
“That an airline can act with that level of impunity is troubling,” Seham added. “Because you can’t have a safe airline if pilots are afraid.”
Still, Petitt, who never yielded to the pressure, is back flying international routes for Delta out of Seattle.
Petitt’s report on Delta’s safety culture
Reached by phone on Friday, Petitt said she could not comment because of a company prohibition against speaking to the media without permission while identified as a Delta employee.
The legal filings, including internal Delta management emails revealed in discovery, tell the story.
Petitt, 60, has a doctorate in aviation safety from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. In late 2015 she listened to Delta’s then-CEO Richard Anderson in a keynote speech say that it was the duty of all employees to speak up if they were aware of safety issues. Such concerns were the subject of the Ph.D. thesis she was then working on.
Petitt began requesting meetings with her supervisors at Delta — including Graham and his boss, Senior Vice President of Flight Operations Steve Dickson, who was later appointed head of the Federal Aviation Administration.
In early 2016, Petitt presented a report to Dickson and Graham listing a series of lapses and including analysis of some nearly catastrophic incidents.
That March, Graham pulled the trigger on Section 15 and referred Petitt for a mental health evaluation from Altman, with whom the company had a long relationship. Petitt learned of the diagnosis in the mail that Christmas Eve.
The Section 15 process then allows the accused pilot to select an independent medical examiner. If that doctor disagrees with the company’s doctor, they have to agree on a third neutral examiner to decide the case.
Petitt engaged a panel of nine medical doctors from the Mayo Clinic’s Aerospace Medicine Department. They concluded unanimously that she did not have bipolar disorder, nor any psychiatric disorder.
Dr. Lawrence Steinkraus, of the Mayo Clinic, testified that Altman’s diagnosis was “a puzzle for our group.”
“The evidence does not support presence of a psychiatric diagnosis but does support an organizational/corporate effort to remove this pilot from the rolls,” Steinkraus testified.
When the neutral doctor backed the Mayo Clinic doctors, Petitt had to be reinstated.
Meanwhile, Petitt had filed a whistleblower complaint.
Helping her case considerably, the Chicago-based Altman forfeited his medical license in 2020 rather than face charges from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation over his conduct of psychiatric exams in the cases of two Delta pilots, one of whom was Petitt.
In December 2020, Judge Morris delivered a scathing ruling that accused Delta of “weaponizing” the Section 15 process to silence internal dissent. In it, he noted of Petitt’s ability as a pilot that “not a single witness questioned her flying acumen.”
He called Graham’s testimony “of dubious credibility.”
Morris awarded Petitt the $500,000 in compensation after considering “not only the harm to her reputation, the embarrassment and emotional hardship she has endured over an extended period of time, but also … the realistic loss of future opportunities for promotion.”
He ordered Delta to prominently post copies of his decision at every pilot base, so that its more than 13,000 pilots would be made aware.
Morris also ordered that Petitt be reinstated with the highest wages of any Delta first officer and made whole for the lost time flying.
Delta appealed but lost again. Friday’s settlement ended the case.
In 2019, the case raised political hackles when President Donald Trump nominated Steve Dickson to be FAA administrator.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., met with Petitt in person and found her credible, she said in an interview.
In a speech on the Senate floor at the confirmation hearing, Cantwell rallied her Democratic colleagues to oppose Dickson’s appointment expressly because of Petitt’s treatment.
“I ask my colleagues to turn down this nomination today and to help us create an environment where whistleblowers will be listened to,” Cantwell said then.
Dickson nevertheless was confirmed in the role, but with only 52 Senate votes.
He stepped down as FAA Administrator in February, just over halfway through his term.
In October 2020, Graham was promoted to CEO of Endeavor, Delta’s regional carrier subsidiary and senior vice president of Delta Connection, the airline’s partnership with regional carriers Skywest and Republic Airways.
Petitt has been back flying for Delta since the independent doctors finally discredited Altman’s diagnosis in 2017. In her current assignment, if you fly Delta out of Seattle to London or Paris on an Airbus A330, she may be your pilot.