Delta paid a doctor to declare a pilot mentally ill after she spoke up. She just won big in court

“We should consider whether a Section 15 is appropriate,” Jim Graham, then Delta’s vice president of flight operations, wrote to a pilot manager, using the terminology for a process that would deem Petitt too mentally ill to pilot planes. “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.”

In other words, if this pilot with decades of experience who is doing a Ph.D. in aviation safety thinks we could be doing better, she must be unable to do her job. Or, anyway, that’s the rationale we’re going to use to punish her for speaking up.

Graham, by the way, reported at that time to Steve Dickson, then Delta’s senior vice president of flight operations, but later appointed head of the Federal Aviation Administration by Donald Trump.

Dr. David Altman, the doctor Delta hired to assess Petitt, was paid $74,000 and came up with a bipolar disorder diagnosis on exquisitely sexist grounds: Petitt was doing so much with her life—the job, the kids, the degrees, the books—“well beyond what any woman I’ve ever met could do,” according to Altman, so she must be manic.

On Altman’s word, Petitt was grounded in 2016. She fought back, using the rules of the Section 15 process, which allow a grounded pilot to hire their own doctor. If that doctor disagrees with the airline’s doctor, a neutral third examiner is the deciding vote. Petitt hired nine doctors from the Mayo Clinic’s Aerospace Medicine Department, who unanimously agreed that she didn’t have bipolar disorder or any psychiatric condition. The neutral examiner then agreed with Petitt’s nine doctors, and Delta had to reinstate her.

“The evidence does not support presence of a psychiatric diagnosis but does support an organizational/corporate effort to remove this pilot from the rolls,” one of the Mayo Clinic doctors testified.

In 2020, Altman gave up his medical license rather than face charges over his diagnosis of Petitt. That’s how corrupt this was.

Delta lost at every level. “They lost before an administrative law judge, they lost before the appellate body, they got thrown out by the 11th Circuit,” Petitt’s attorney said. “They were willing to litigate it to the death.”

Even after the final settlement, with Administrative Law Judge Scott Morris calling it “improper for [Delta] to weaponize this process for the purposes of obtaining blind compliance by its pilots,” Delta refused to admit any 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 to The Seattle Times. “Delta’s fitness for duty testing process for pilots is in place to ensure safety, and it works.” But Delta’s pilots will have a chance to learn the truth: Morris ordered copies of his decision posted at every Delta pilot base, in addition to the $500,000 plus legal fees the airline will have to pay Petitt.

Nonetheless, the fact that Delta refuses to back down sends a strong message: Pilots should keep their mouths shut about potential safety problems, or else. Because most people wouldn’t have the guts or resourcefulness Petitt had in her six-and-a-half-year fight with her employer.

The 2022 midterms are just around the corner, and you sent us a ton of fantastic questions for this week’s episode of The Downballot. Among the many topics we cover: which states are likely to report results slowly—and how will those results change over time; the House districts that look like key bellwethers for how the night might go, and which might offer surprises; why and how Democrats make the hard decisions on which races to triage; the top legislative chambers to keep an eye on; and plenty more!

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