A leading advocate of airline-passenger rights filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday accusing Delta Air Lines of obtaining hacked e-mails and other files in an effort to derail her lobbying on behalf of expanded protections for air travelers.
The suit by Kate Hanni claims that Metron Aviation, a Dulles-based technology and research firm, used the e-mails to fire an employee who had shared information with her.
Hanni, founder and executive director of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, is seeking $1 million in economic damages and $10 million in punitive damages from Delta and Metron.
The Metron employee, researcher Frederick J. Foreman, claims in an affidavit that a company official showed him hacked and stolen e-mails from Foreman's private MSN account, Hanni's AOL account and the accounts of two reporters.
Foreman said he was fired Sept. 25. He said a Metron official told him that Delta had provided the e-mails.
Delta denied the allegations Tuesday. "Obviously the idea that Delta would hack into someone's e-mail is clearly without merit," a Delta spokesman said, reading a statement. He declined to comment further because the case is pending.
In a statement, Metron said any allegations that Metron Aviation behaved illegally or improperly were "completely baseless and without merit."
Hanni's organization, also known as FlyersRights.org, is the leading proponent of a federal law that would require airlines to provide food, water, access to restrooms and medical treatment during lengthy tarmac delays.
In the September meeting, Foreman said he was told that Delta was afraid that the information he shared with Hanni's group would be used to lend support to the passenger-rights bill. In an interview Tuesday, Foreman said that at the time, he was working on a government-sponsored research project that examined excessive tarmac delays at U.S. airports. But he said he didn't give Hanni much information.
"All I did was give her a one-page letter telling her some things that I got off of the Department of Transportation Web site," he said.
Foreman said he was considering a separate lawsuit in the matter and was seeking an attorney.
"Either Delta actively participated in the hacking of the e-mails or they obtained e-mails from an illegal source and did not report it," said Jason Gibson, Hanni's attorney. "We're going to find out once this litigation process starts."
Hanni, a Napa Valley real estate agent and mother of two, has been a colorful figure in the Washington aviation world since early 2007, one of the industry's worst periods of delays and airport congestion. Her advocacy efforts were sparked by personal experience: In December 2006, she was among a group of passengers stranded for nine hours aboard a tarmac-bound American Airlines plane in Austin.
Hanni has since built herself up as the public face of passenger discontent with poor airline service. Her organization is one of a few that lobby lawmakers on behalf of air travelers.