Former Delta exec up for FAA job faces scrutiny over pilot’s mental health case

A former Delta Air Lines executive's bid to lead the Federal Aviation Administration is on hold as a U.S. Senate committee investigates how the Atlanta-based carrier treated a pilot who raised safety concerns.

The pilot, Karlene Petitt, filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration complaint against Delta in 2016. She alleged that after she came forward, the airline grounded her and referred her for a psychiatric examination by a company doctor who then diagnosed her with bipolar disorder.

Subsequent medical examinations determined Petitt did not suffer from bipolar disorder, and she has since returned to flying for Delta. But Petitt alleges she was removed from flying for 22 months as a result of Delta's "adverse and retaliatory actions."

"From our perspective at Delta, they used psychiatric evaluation as an alternative to discipline," said Petitt's attorney Lee Seham.

Delta denies Petitt was referred for a medical assessment in retaliation, and says she was referred for a medical evaluation after her behavior and statements raised questions about her fitness to fly.

The Delta executive who oversaw pilots at the time, Steve Dickson, has now been nominated by President Donald Trump to the position of FAA administrator. The Senate commerce committee held a hearing on Dickson's nomination last month.

But after media reports on Petitt’s OSHA case, the committee has hit pause on the process to confirm Dickson’s nomination.

Dickson said he decided moving forward with a medical review of Petitt “was a sound course of action,” according to a deposition in the OSHA case. Dickson is not named as a party to the suit.

Committee chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said in a written statement that since the hearing, “new information has come to the committee’s attention that merits further examination.” The committee is reviewing the information and asked the White House to also review it, according to Wicker. Dickson has been cooperative with staff requests, according to a committee aide.

The White House issued a statement saying it “has complete confidence in [Dickson’s] nomination and expects him to be confirmed.”

OSHA in 2018 found there was insufficient evidence to determine a violation occurred. Petitt appealed, and an administrative law hearing was held earlier this year. A ruling isn’t expected until next year.

In a report Petitt submitted to Delta, she raised concerns about the management style of Delta's Flight Operations department, saying it had an "Old school military and completely hierarchy mode of operation." Petitt at the time was pursuing a Ph.D. in aviation safety and raised concerns about the company's culture as part of its safety management system — the company's approach to managing safety risk.

She also wrote of how she felt she was treated differently than other pilots and retaliated against for posting on her blog about aviation and other activities.

According to a Delta executive’s testimony, the woman who interviewed her for the internal investigation said Petitt “was quite emotional” and that she was concerned “that something would happen to her, that Flight Operations was out to get her.”

After the interview, Delta said it referred Petitt for a medical evaluation, and out of an abundance of caution followed its medical review process in its pilot contract. In the end, the process concluded she was fit to fly.

The company said Petitt received pay and benefits for the period she was grounded, and said it stands by its decision.

It’s not the first time a pilot has claimed Delta has used medical evaluations in such a way.

A former pilot, Michael Protack, filed suit against Delta last year for wrongful termination and retaliation. Protack alleges that after he reported safety concerns about airplanes and complained about pay cuts and pension changes, Delta falsely claimed he was medically unfit to fly and required a psychiatric evaluation to fly again.

Delta said safety is the “driving force behind everything we do.”

The 2015 crash of a Germanwings flight put a spotlight on mental health after the plane's co-pilot, who had been treated for suicidal tendencies and had been ruled unfit to work but kept the diagnosis secret, intentionally crashed a plane into a mountainside in the Alps.

“Our utmost responsibility is to provide safe and secure travel for our customers and our employees,” Delta said, adding “we do not tolerate retaliation against employees who raise concerns.”