Delta Air Lines Settles With Pilot Who Raised Safety Concerns

A judge approves the settlement closing a six-year dispute that embroiled former FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.

Labor Department administrative law judge Scott Morris has approved a compensatory settlement between Delta Air Lines and Karlene Petitt after finding that the airline retaliated against Petitt for raising safety issues related to the airline’s flight operations. Judge Morris reportedly approved the settlement—believed to be in the sum of $500,000—last Friday, closing a six-year dispute that embroiled former FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.

In 2016, Petitt, then a Delta Boeing 777 first officer, raised safety issues about aspects of the airline’s operations in an Air 21 report she jointly filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the FAA. According to Petitt’s lawyers, her concerns related to Delta’s handling of pilot fatigue, pilot training, pilot training records, and what she described as Delta’s failure to properly maintain its FAA-mandated safety management system (SMS) program.

FAA’s Dickson Played a Key Role

In response to Petitt’s report, Steve Dickson, then Delta Air Line’s senior vice president of flight operations, referred her to a Delta-hired psychiatrist, who diagnosed the pilot with bipolar disorder, which automatically disqualified her from flying. Subsequent mental health exams found no basis for the bipolar diagnosis and returned Petitt to flying status some 18 months after she was grounded. Petitt is now type rated on the Airbus A350.

Petitt sued Delta claiming the airline retaliated against her whistleblower action. 

Before taking over the top job at the FAA in July 2019, Dickson’s actions related to the lawsuit were called into question. Though Senators eventually confirmed his nomination as FAA administrator, Dickson’s role in Petitt’s case caused much concern, and some senators opposed his approval. Throughout the hearings, Dickson maintained his actions were appropriate. He said that Petitt’s statements and behavior “raised legitimate questions about her fitness to fly.” 

The End of a Long Dispute

In a December 21, 2020, ruling, the U.S. Department of Labor granted relief to Petitt from her 2016 discrimination complaint.

As FLYING reported, the administrative tribunal found that Delta failed to provide clear and convincing evidence of why they put Petitt through a psychiatric evaluation and that the airline did engage in an adverse employment action with discriminatory intent.

The recent settlement finalized in arbitration on October 21, grants Petitt’s request for compensatory damages. She had sought $30 million in relief, but eventually, her lawyers and Delta’s settled on $500,000 for back pay and expenses. Though the Labor Department doesn’t make settlement terms public, AP reports they were “consistent with” the arbiter’s 2020 ruling, which said that Karlene Petitt deserved to get $500,000 in compensation for damage to her career.”


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