It started a couple of months ago with a laptop that inexplicably crashed.
Then, someone altered the password on Kate Hanni's desktop computer and when she finally got into it, the files were corrupted.
Microsoft's tech support said she'd been hacked. A few weeks later, all her e-mail disappeared, and AOL told her the same thing.
Hanni, who lives in California, is the founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, the group that's spearheading efforts in Congress to prevent airlines from imprisoning passengers on delayed flights.
In a lawsuit filed in Houston Tuesday, she claims that Delta Air Lines was behind the hacking, accusing the world's largest carrier of conspiracy and invasion of privacy.
Hanni believes Delta wants to crush her attempts to force better customer service on the airline industry, which has fought mightily to ensure it can treat passengers shabbily.
“Delta stands to lose the most,” she told me in an interview at her lawyer's office in Houston. “They overschedule out of New York every day. They can't get those planes off the ground.”
Seeking $11 million
The bills working their way through Congress would require airlines to provide food, water, clean air, access to functioning restrooms and medical attention if needed during delays of more than three hours. They also would require the option of getting off the plane.
In her lawsuit, Hanni claims the passenger rights bill would cost Delta $40 million in lost revenue. She and her group are seeking $1 million in actual and $10 million in exemplary damages.
Delta spokesman Trebor Bansetter said the company can't say much because the lawsuit is pending but that “obviously the idea that Delta would hack into someone's e-mail is clearly without merit.”
Earlier this year, Hanni began exchanging e-mails with Frederick Foreman, an analyst with Virginia-based Metron Aviation who was studying government flight delay data. Metron officials knew Foreman was sharing some information with Hanni, according to the lawsuit.
Firing linked to e-mails
On Sept. 25, Metron fired Foreman after producing e-mail exchanges between him and Hanni, some of which were sent from his personal e-mail account, the lawsuit says. When Foreman asked how Metron got the e-mails, officials told him they came from Delta, which hired Metron as a consultant, according to Foreman's affidavit filed with the lawsuit.
The e-mails hacked from Hanni included those from a number of journalists, including me, according to her attorney, Jason Gibson.
Metron said any claims it “behaved illegally or improperly in this matter are completely baseless and without merit.”
Foreman said the information he shared with Hanni was publicly available, and that he corresponded with her on his own time.
“I never sent Kate any proprietary data,” he said.
But he has no doubt Delta didn't want his findings made public because they undercut the airlines' attempt to blame the Federal Aviation Administration's antiquated air traffic control system for flight delays.
“There's no way the FAA is to blame for surface delays,” he said. “The airlines are to blame.”
Support in Congress
The airlines attempt to portray Hanni, a former real estate agent, as something of a dingbat who doesn't understand the issues.
But her efforts have been far more successful than previous grass-roots efforts to enact a passengers' bill of rights. She's garnered more support in Congress and helped spur proposed changes in FAA rules.
Delta's alleged skulduggery, if true, only reinforces the need for the rules Hanni seeks.
It reminds us that airlines value operating efficiency far more than humane treatment of paying customers, and that those values won't change without an act of Congress.
The irony, of course, is that if the carriers put as much effort into improving service as Delta apparently has into fighting Hanni, we wouldn't need a passenger rights bill.
Loren Steffy is the Chronicle's business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is at http://blogs.chron.com/lorensteffy.