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The Not So Friendly Skies: When "Saying Something" Leads to Retaliation

Posted  January 8, 2015

By Marlene Koury

We all know the motto: if you see something, say something. The thirteen senior United flight attendants making the news this week saw something, said something, and, as alleged in their complaint filed earlier this week, were fired in retaliation.

On July 14, 2014, while preparing to depart San Francisco with a nearly full 747 plane bound for Hong Kong, the attendants became aware that someone had written threatening words in an oil slick near the airplane’s tail cone. The writing consisted of the words “BYE BYE” with two faces, one smiling and one “devilish,” and what appeared to be a drawing depicting a small splash.

The attendants were concerned the message raised security and safety concerns for the airplane, passengers and crew. The tail cone of the plane could only be reached by someone with security access and no one had any idea how the message could have gotten there without a security breach. The attendants demanded the airline take adequate steps to address their concerns, including deplaning the passengers and conducting a security inspection.

Instead, they allege United management gave them a “direct order” to board the plane and prepare for takeoff as scheduled. Out of concern for the safety of the passengers and crew, they refused to staff the plane. One of the thirteen, Grace Lam, said in a news release “given the gravity of the risks involved — the lives of passengers and crew alike — we were not willing to bow to United’s pressure to ignore an unresolved security threat even though the company made clear that we risked losing our jobs.” The airline cancelled the flight due to “crew availability” and terminated the flight attendants for “insubordination” shortly thereafter.

The attendants filed their complaint under the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century. The Act protects employees from retaliation for opposing violations of air safety or security standards. The attendants are seeking reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages and payment of attorneys’ fees and costs.

We all want those responsible for our safety and security to say something if they see something up in the friendly skies. As Ms. Lam made clear, “if this happens again today, all over again, I would have done the same thing. Any flight attendant would have done — this is our job.”

Tagged in: Retaliation, Whistleblower Protection Laws,