An airline passenger rights advocate is accusing Delta Air Lines of hacking into her computer and e-mail accounts to sabotage her organization's attempts to mandate basic services during flight delays.
Kate Hanni, a resident of California, is the founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, an organization lobbying for federal laws that require airlines to provide bathroom access, clean air, and access to medical treatment when passengers are held up for hours on the tarmac. The legislation would also give passengers an option to exit the plane if they have been delayed on the tarmac for over three hours. Four versions of a "Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights of 2009" are currently pending before Congress.
In a lawsuit filed in Houston, Texas on Tuesday, Hanni accuses the world's largest airline carrier and an aviation consulting firm of conspiring to breach her computer and email in order to derail her lobbying efforts. She seeks a minimum of $11m in damages.
According to court documents, Hanni claims earlier this year she began exchanging emails with Frederick Foreman, an analyst with Virginia-based Metron Aviation who was researching US government airline surface delay data. During their correspondence, both swapped data and information about surface delays with explicit permission from Metron, of which Delta is a client.
Hanni said her PC and America Online email account were both accessed illegally this summer, with AOL confirming the email breach. Some of her data was copied to an unknown location, and other files were corrupted and rendered useless.
The plot thickens in Foreman's affidavit. He claims that on September 25, 2009, Metron executives confronted him with "what appeared to be hacked and stolen email communications" between Hanni and himself, as well as two media contacts. The emails were sent from his private accounts on MSN and AOL and not sent through Metron's internal email system, he claims.
Foreman states in his sworn affidavit that the executive informed him the emails were sent to the Metron from Delta and that the airline was "mad and upset" Hanni had been provided with the flight delay information. Foreman claims he tried to explain that the data was publicly available online from US government statistics, but was still fired and escorted off the premises.
When reached for comment, Delta flatly stated, "the allegation that we would hack an individual's e-mail is absurd."
Hanni claims Delta has a motive for seeking and destroying her data because if passenger rights bills are passed, airlines stand to lose over $40m in revenues in addition to millions more in accommodations for customers exiting planes during long delays. Currently, airlines are not restricted by law on how long planes can hold passengers on the tarmac.
A copy of the lawsuit is available here. ®