Pilot Sues Delta For $1 Billion Over Trade-Secrets Theft

Pilot Sues Delta For $1 Billion Over Trade-Secrets Theft

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It’s not every day you see a pilot file a $1 billion lawsuit against the airline they work for…

Pilot sues Delta over text messaging app

Craig Alexander is an active Delta Boeing 757 captain who is suing Delta for $1 billion in Georgia state court for trade-secrets theft. He claims that he developed a text messaging app for flight crews that the airline ended up stealing. He had pitched the concept to Delta, was turned down, and then Delta allegedly launched a very similar app.

According to the lawsuit:

  • Alexander spent over $100,000 of his own money to develop the QrewLiveApp, intended to address crew communications challenges, following flight disruptions at the airline
  • Alexander had several positive meetings with executives at the airline in 2015 and 2016, and they expressed interest in acquiring his app
  • Eventually Delta cut off communications, and in April 2018 the airline launched its own app, named Flight Family Communication (FFC), which is a “carbon copy, knock-off of the role-based text messaging component” of the QrewLive app
  • Alexander claims that Delta “stole like a thief in the night”

What is Delta Flight Family Communication?

Here’s how Delta described the concept of FFC when it was launched in 2018:

The innovative and proprietary Flight Family Communication platform ensures employees, or flight family members, working an assigned Delta flight have the ability to communicate directly with one another about the status of dozens of tasks and customer service items required before departure – think catering, cleaning, fueling, accounting for carry-on and checked bags, inspecting aircraft, etc. ​

The real-time digital conversation stream is visible to pilots on electronic flight bag tablets, to flight attendants via handheld SkyPro devices, and on desktop platforms for gate agents, flight dispatchers, system operations managers and Airport Customer Service Tower personnel. It provides each with shared awareness from their own work spaces in the airport or around the aircraft about the status of pre-flight activities, instead of relying on word of mouth, radios and jetway phones to relay information through multiple people — an antiquated process that airlines have been beholden to for decades.

Is this a billion dollar lawsuit?

Alexander claims that the app that Delta ended up launching has significantly smoothed operations, and he states that the value of the app “based solely upon operational cost savings to Delta, conservatively exceeds $1 billion.”

Alexander is also seeking punitive damages against Delta:

“To add insult to theft and injury, Captain Craig Alexander must use his stolen QrewLive text messaging platform every day while he works for Delta. Each time he looks at the FFC app, he is painfully reminded that Delta stole his proprietary trade secrets, used them to Delta’s enormous financial benefit.”

What’s Delta’s side of the story? A Delta spokesperson had the following to say about the lawsuit:

“While we take the allegations specified in Mr. Alexander’s complaint seriously, they are not an accurate or fair description of Delta’s development of its internal crew messaging platform.”

I’m obviously no lawyer, but here are my general first impressions:

  • I don’t have enough context or information to know whether Delta did in fact steal this idea from the pilot
  • Even if Delta did “steal” this idea, the billion dollar lawsuit seems just a bit rich, since he essentially wants all of Delta’s upside from operations running more smoothly as a result of an internal messaging system
  • While it’s possible that the pilot’s app had some unique features, one would think that the concept of a messaging app between employees as such isn’t that novel

Bottom line

A Delta Air Lines captain is suing his airline for $1 billion, claiming the airline stole the concept of his app. According to the lawsuit, he had spent over $100,000 of his own money developing the app and was in discussions with Delta about selling it. The airline eventually turned him down, but then created a messaging system that was very similar.

The pilot is now seeking $1 billion in damages, claiming that this is conservatively the operational cost savings to the airline for the new messaging app.

I’m curious to see what comes of this…

What do you make of this billion dollar lawsuit against Delta?

Conversations (18)
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  1. Robpoint2

    I don't know anything more about this case that what is in this article. However, I can believe an IT department for a major company would do something like this.

    My guess is Delta IT outsourced the job of coding the app and the specifications had all the functionality of the one the Captain designed as well as a few more features with a "corporate flavor" so they claim it is a new design. #JustMyGuess

  2. Michael Barry

    I know how Delta works I was employed from the late 60’s to the early 70’s and developed a way increase convention business and company meetings. They pulled the plug on me after I laid out the whole concept and the I was dismissed. Great working for you Delta.

  3. Anthony

    Ben, Very similar to this Delta case.
    Robert Kearns won one of the best known patent infringement cases against Ford Motor Company (1978–1990) and a case against Chrysler Corporation (1982–1992), invented the most common intermittent windshield wiper systems used on most automobiles from 1969 to the present.
    The "Big Three" auto makers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) rejected his proposal, yet began to install electronic intermittent wipers based on Kearns's design in their...

    Ben, Very similar to this Delta case.
    Robert Kearns won one of the best known patent infringement cases against Ford Motor Company (1978–1990) and a case against Chrysler Corporation (1982–1992), invented the most common intermittent windshield wiper systems used on most automobiles from 1969 to the present.
    The "Big Three" auto makers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) rejected his proposal, yet began to install electronic intermittent wipers based on Kearns's design in their cars, beginning in 1969.

    The lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company was opened in 1978 and ended in 1990. Kearns sought $395 million in damages, but was awarded $10.2 million. Chrysler was ordered to pay Kearns US$18.7 million with interest.[

  4. Ray

    No worries flying with this pilot until he loses the case. Remember he thinks he has $1B to come home to.

  5. henare

    Internal messaging apps are $0.10/dozen. There's no obvious discussion of lots of important details here, but I'm betting that many of those details are not in this pilot's favor and I feel pretty certain that I wouldn't want to fly with this pilot anytime soon...

  6. red_robbo

    A very surprising case. It's not as if "his" proposal was unique or a first - other airlines have been building almost identical apps to co-ordinate aircraft departure activities for at least the last decade that I'm aware of.

  7. Tim Dunn

    Based on what was written, this pilot, on an unsolicited basis, told his boss what he thought would be a good idea and then went so far as to provide mockups. It isn't his job to develop software and he wasn't asked to do so.
    The pilot's error was in taking his idea to someone else but esp. his employer without properly protecting his idea including by beginning development of the app and properly...

    Based on what was written, this pilot, on an unsolicited basis, told his boss what he thought would be a good idea and then went so far as to provide mockups. It isn't his job to develop software and he wasn't asked to do so.
    The pilot's error was in taking his idea to someone else but esp. his employer without properly protecting his idea including by beginning development of the app and properly documenting what it would do. All he was basically doing is creating a group SMS app that would allow members to be added and deleted based on crew member rotations. It isn't a complex idea and the GUI could be configured in any number of ways which would make it unique enough.

    As someone who thought I had an "idea" and did a patent search only to find that what I "invented" was patented in Europe which means the US would not provide a patent even though the product was not sold here, it is rare for someone to really develop something that is totally earth shattering and new.

    Hope he gets over it but I would bet that he has plenty of eyes watching him.

  8. Bort

    Calvin Klein did the same thing to Kramer with "The Beach" cologne. There's no justice.

  9. InLA

    Another question is whether the pilot signed an employment agreement with Delta that includes an assignment of intellectual property rights from the employee to the employer. That’s quite standard procedure.

  10. Robert

    Unless this guy has something firm like a parent it'll be tough to prove Delta stole anything, not to mention proving Delta wasn't already developing a similar product at the pitch time. If his claims are true it sounds like he didn't do enough to protect himself

  11. Capt'n

    As a retired captain for a major US airline (not Delta) I wouldn't want to fly with this guy - he's wound up like a golf ball. Most pilots love their chosen occupation and aren't trying to be billionaires by filing lawsuits against their own company. I pity his copilots.

  12. FabinhoBP

    I would be very concerned to travel on a Delta plane if this guy is the pilot.

  13. Abey

    I billion doesn’t seem that far off given that WhatsApp was sold for 19 billion years ago and this is probably used by a significant amount of employees. We need DL employees to chime in

  14. upstater

    Intellectual Property claims are very expensive and difficult to litigate and win as a plaintiff -- been there and done that. We had a unique service that was sold to multiple fortune 500 companies. We had a good contract and confidentiality/NDA terms. Our product was so good the industry association decided to create a knock off version. It took 5 years and an enormous amount of money to eventually win. But the defendants spent $10M...

    Intellectual Property claims are very expensive and difficult to litigate and win as a plaintiff -- been there and done that. We had a unique service that was sold to multiple fortune 500 companies. We had a good contract and confidentiality/NDA terms. Our product was so good the industry association decided to create a knock off version. It took 5 years and an enormous amount of money to eventually win. But the defendants spent $10M in legal fees trying to grind our small business into a bloody pulp. Corporations will spare no expense in such a matter. They just add the expenses to their consumer's cost and it is deducted as a business expense. Note that such disputes almost never argued for the plaintiff on a contingency basis; you have to write a check for you counsel each month, for years.

    The barriers to file such a lawsuit are very high and it simply wouldn't get filed if it had no merit. Make no mistake about it, the legal system is highly deferential to megacorpations and their $800/hour lawyers and hold individuals and small business with disdain.

  15. Gulf

    He's right to go for as much as possible if it really was his. I've lost count of the times my employer have stolen my ideas then passed them off as their own wrapped up in another cover.

    1. MoJoe

      Not a lawyer, but in the United States, most employers are entitled to [the benefits from] all work products you have developed at their direction or on company time. Unless you have developed a novel idea, 100% on your own time, unrelated to your work duties, your idea belongs to your company/employer. That's an over-generalization, of course, and it may vary according to your state and any employment agreements made when you were hired. However,...

      Not a lawyer, but in the United States, most employers are entitled to [the benefits from] all work products you have developed at their direction or on company time. Unless you have developed a novel idea, 100% on your own time, unrelated to your work duties, your idea belongs to your company/employer. That's an over-generalization, of course, and it may vary according to your state and any employment agreements made when you were hired. However, if your company received a patent on the idea, you should have been included/credited on the application. You could/should speak to an attorney if you have a strong case.

  16. D3kingg

    Would you want this pilot to continue flying knowing his spiteful ness towards the airline ?

    1. Jay

      I was thinking the same thing. It's like removing a cop from duty while they're under investigation. The union contract should automatically remove him from duty while this lawsuit is active. Hell no I don't want a pilot on my flight while he's suing his employer.

Featured Comments Load all 18 comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

upstater

Intellectual Property claims are very expensive and difficult to litigate and win as a plaintiff -- been there and done that. We had a unique service that was sold to multiple fortune 500 companies. We had a good contract and confidentiality/NDA terms. Our product was so good the industry association decided to create a knock off version. It took 5 years and an enormous amount of money to eventually win. But the defendants spent $10M in legal fees trying to grind our small business into a bloody pulp. Corporations will spare no expense in such a matter. They just add the expenses to their consumer's cost and it is deducted as a business expense. Note that such disputes almost never argued for the plaintiff on a contingency basis; you have to write a check for you counsel each month, for years. The barriers to file such a lawsuit are very high and it simply wouldn't get filed if it had no merit. Make no mistake about it, the legal system is highly deferential to megacorpations and their $800/hour lawyers and hold individuals and small business with disdain.

Bort

Calvin Klein did the same thing to Kramer with "The Beach" cologne. There's no justice.

MoJoe

Not a lawyer, but in the United States, most employers are entitled to [the benefits from] all work products you have developed at their direction or on company time. Unless you have developed a novel idea, 100% on your own time, unrelated to your work duties, your idea belongs to your company/employer. That's an over-generalization, of course, and it may vary according to your state and any employment agreements made when you were hired. However, if your company received a patent on the idea, you should have been included/credited on the application. You could/should speak to an attorney if you have a strong case.

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