FlyersRights.org sued Delta and an FAA contractor on Tuesday, alleging that the companies conspired to derail the group’s efforts to persuade Congress to enact a passenger rights bill that would limit tarmac delays to three hours.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Houston, alleges that Delta and the contractor, Metron Aviation of Dulles, Va., used "hacked" emails in an attempt to discredit the group and as a reason to fire a Metron employee who had been analyzing FAA data on delays and passing that information to FlyersRights.org.
"Obviously, the idea that Delta would hack into someone’s email is clearly without merit," Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said. "Since this involves pending litigation, we cannot comment further."
The lawsuit also alleges that other information was stolen from the private computer of Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.
The lawsuit asks for $1 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages.
"Delta conspired with Metron (or others) to obtain emails and computer files," the lawsuit asserts. "Delta then provided Metron with the illegally obtained emails and files from [Hanni’s] computer and AOL account."
The lawsuit is essentially based on a conversation between Metron executives and Frederick Foreman, an MIT graduate working for Metron, which had been contracted by the FAA to analyze airline surface delays.
The lawsuit alleges that Foreman, "with explicit permission from Metron, updated Hanni with public information and statistics from his research and analysis. Hanni, in return, provided Foreman with data and information she acquired about surface delays. In his final report, Foreman pinpointed Delta as an airline experiencing excessive surface delays."
On Sept. 25, the lawsuit alleges, "Metron executives confronted Foreman with the stolen emails and claimed Delta, a client of Metron, was angry about Hanni getting information that would help pass the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights."
According to the lawsuit, that legislation, if enacted, would cost the airlines $40 million in revenue.
"When Foreman asked Metron how the company had obtained the information, Metron claimed that Delta had provided them with the stolen e-mails," the lawsuit asserts. "The screenshots of the stolen e-mails presented to Foreman were from Delta."
In his affidavit, Foreman testified that Metron showed him "what appeared to be hacked and stolen email communications within the last six months or more" between Foreman and Hanni, as well as emails with a USA Today reporter and a "number of people."
Foreman, the lawsuit claims, was fired by Metron the same day, even though Foreman claimed that the information he had shared was easily available online from the Transportation Department.
During the time Hanni was sharing information with Foreman, "Hanni’s personal computer files and Flyersrights email accounts were hacked. America Online, Hanni’s e-mail service provider, confirmed the email accounts were hacked. As a result of the hacking, spreadsheets, lists of donors, emails, Department of Transportation statistics and Hanni’s personal files were redirected to an unknown location," the lawsuit alleges.
In addition, the lawsuit claims that Hanni’s personal laptop was corrupted and rendered useless by the hacking effort.