Friday, August 21, 2009

Pissy USAirways Pilot Plans to Continue Fight Against Flight Attendants

Pissy US Airways Pilot Plans to Continue Fight Against Flight Attendants
By Sarah Fenske in NewsThursday, Jul. 23 2009 @ 12:05PM
Victor J. Palagano
Flight attendants Paula Walker, Brian Shunick, and Sue Burris
He's baaaaaaaaack!

Four months after a Superior Court judge unceremoniously tossed a libel suit filed by an unhappy U.S. Airways pilot, we've gotten word that the pilot, Ed Gannon, will be appealing the decision.

Can't this guy take a hint already?

As we first reported in January, Gannon sued three of his company's own flight attendants after they complained to federal authorities about his handling of a potentially dangerous situation. The flight attendants saw icy buildup on the wings of a plane about to depart Calgary for Phoenix, but they had to pester the pilots into taking action.

Naturally, the flight attendants were troubled by the pilots' initial resistance. (Icy wings can be deadly.) Upon landing in Phoenix, they let US Airways know about the incident -- and the company asked them to contact the FAA.

It's their statements to the FAA, though, that formed the basis for a three-year nightmare. After the FAA decided not to take action against Gannon, he sued the flight attendants for libel, demanding $2 million. And, unbelievably, the company has refused to pay the flight attendants' legal bills.

Thanks to the work of the flight attendants' ace lawyers, Michael Pearson and Daniel Riley at Curry Pearson & Wooten, Judge Louis Araneta dismissed the pilot's lawsuit in March. The fiesty Gannon then attempted to get another judge to reverse Araneta. That failed (duh!), but flight attendant Paula Walker tells New Times that Gannon has announced plans for an appeal.

We've seen first hand how litigious this pilot is -- after our first column about the lawsuit, he actually attempted to use the courts to force us to turn over our notes. That attempt, thankfully, was rendered moot by Judge Araneta's dismissal.

The flight attendants -- Paula Walker, Sue Burris, and Brian Shunick -- have lived under the cloud of this lawsuit for years, and it looks like their battle will be continuing to the appellate level. Sigh.

To donate to their defense fund, please check out their blog here. As Walker notes, they don't update the blog much -- but the issue is still current, and they could definitely still use some help.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


The Three US Airways Attendants Have Been Vindicated, So Why Doesn’t the Company Have Their Back?
By Sarah Fenske
Published on March 10, 2009 at 1:43pm
Sue Burris was fast asleep when the phone rang just before midnight that Saturday. Rousted from her bed, at first she didn't understand what Paula Walker was saying.
"It took me a few minutes to understand," Burris says. "But then I got it — and then I had to make a few phone calls, too!"

For more than two years, Walker, Burris, and their co-worker Brian Shunick lived under the stress of a lawsuit from a colleague. They're flight attendants at Tempe-based US Airways, while the colleague who sued them, Ed Gannon, is a pilot.

The three flight attendants had reported Gannon to the Federal Aviation Administration in 2003, saying that his reluctance to de-ice an aircraft's wings before takeoff could have endangered passengers. Gannon fired back with the lawsuit in 2006. He claimed that the flight attendants lied and defamed him by making the report — and then demanded $2 million for the "emotional distress" he'd supposedly suffered.

For 2 1/2 years, the flight attendants racked up tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills. All three were forced to refinance their homes. All three worried about just how much it would cost to take the case to trial.

Then, late last month, came the ruling from Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Louis Araneta.

The judge had dismissed the pilot's lawsuit entirely.

There was no evidence that the flight attendants had knowingly made false statements, Araneta wrote, nor that they'd made their statements with "reckless disregard for the truth." That meant there was no defamation.

For the flight attendants, it was complete vindication. But that doesn't mean the story, or their struggle, is over.


I first reported the flight attendants' plight earlier this year ("An Icy Wing and a Prayer," January 29). Two weeks later, Contintental Flight 3407 crashed into a home in Buffalo, New York, killing everyone onboard.

I'd understood how important the flight attendants' story was, but the crash in Buffalo really drove it home for me — as it should for anyone who cares about airline safety. And that's because preliminary reports suggest that Flight 3407 may have crashed because ice built up on the wings of the aircraft. In the aftermath, Steven R. Chealander of the National Transportation Safety Board told the Buffalo News, "Significant ice build-up is an aerodynamic impediment. Airplanes are built with wings that are shaped a certain way, and ice can change the shape."

And icy wings are what got Paula Walker, Sue Burris, and Brian Shunick in this jam in the first place.

Walker, a flight attendant with more than 20 years of experience, had noticed ice or frost on the wings of America West Flight 851 as it was preparing to leave Calgary, Alberta, for Phoenix six years ago. She knew what that meant, so she was shocked that the pilots began pushing back from the gate without de-icing first.

When Walker questioned the pilots, they resisted de-icing, as she later told the FAA. It was only after she got Burris and Shunick involved, and the three used the pretext of passengers mentioning the icy wings, that the pilots grudgingly agreed to de-ice, according to their complaint.

By making the ice an issue, the three flight attendants may well have saved the life of every passenger onboard.

I suspect America West — which later merged to become US Airways — realized that. Upon landing, Walker told her superiors about the pilots' curious reluctance to de-ice, and they helped her call the FAA immediately. That was the right decision, I think, even though the FAA ultimately found insufficient evidence to take action against Gannon.

The problem is what happened after the FAA closed its investigation, when Gannon decided to sue the whistleblowers.

For US Airways, this should have been a no-brainer. The flight attendants' contract calls for the company to pay attorney fees if attendants are sued for anything related to their official duties. That was clearly the case here.

But instead of hiring these flight attendants a lawyer, US Airways hung them out to dry.

For two years, the pilot battled the three in court. His lawyers hired a half-dozen experts, deposed a number of witnesses, and at one point, even attempted to get the flight attendants' lawyer, Michael Pearson, removed from the case. (Interestingly, Pearson is an air traffic controller with the FAA, as well as a lawyer; the judge ultimately decided that wasn't a conflict.)

Through their Web site,, the three have raised a little money for their defense, but that $1,111 is a pittance next to the $80,000 they believe they'll ultimately end up spending once the final bill is tallied. And make no mistake: They have little to no chance of recouping that money from Gannon, no matter how frivolous his lawsuit was.

That's how our legal system works, unfortunately.

But it shouldn't be how our airlines work. US Airways has a duty to these flight attendants — and it doesn't include throwing them under a bus the minute their actions become controversial.

Lisa LeCarre is the president of the chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants that represents US Airways' Phoenix-based flight attendants. The union is pursuing an internal grievance process in hopes of getting the airline to pay up, she says.
but, I doubt it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

pilot's Suit Against Whistleblowing Flight Attendants Tossed by Judge

Pilot's Suit Against Whistleblowing Flight Attendants Tossed by Judge
By Sarah Fenske in NewsMonday, Mar. 2 2009 @ 3:22PM

Victor J. Palagano III
Flight attendants Paula Walker, Brian Shunick, and Sue Burris have been vindicated by the judge's ruling.
Score one for safety.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Louis Araneta last week dimissed a U.S. Airways pilot's lawsuit against three flight attendants who complained about him to the Federal Aviation Administration. The flight attendants filed their complaint after the pilot, First Officer Ed Gannon, initially resisted their suggestion that he needed to de-ice the wings of the plane prior to take off on a frigid morning in Calgary, Alberta.

Icy wings have been blamed for a number of plane crashes, including the one in Buffalo last month. And though Gannon did eventually acquiesce to the flight attendants' pleas -- and admitted in deposition that he did see "frost" on the wings, thereby necessitating the de-icing -- he still filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court, arguing that the flight attendants lied to the FAA and defamed him.

Not true, according to Judge Araneta.

Gannon, Araneta wrote, "acknowledges in his deposition that he saw frost on the wing and that frost is a contaminant under the FAA regulation. [His] viewing of the frost was consistent with the [flight attendants] having seen what they thought was ice and reporting it."

And, as the judge added, Gannon "admitted in his deposition that a flight attendant does not act recklessly if they see ice or contamination on an aircraft and report it."

Nice we could clear that up.

"Of course, we are just ecstatic," Paula Walker, one of the flight attendants in the case, told New Times this afternoon. "We learned about this over the weekend, and it's been a fabulous weekend -- FINALLY. You can put that in capital letters!"

"It's great that Judge Araneta recognized this was a safety issue," said Daniel Riley, of Curry Pearson, & Wooten, who represented the flight attendants. "He saw that Gannon essentially admitted to everything he'd claimed was defamatory. The only bad part is that it still ending up costing the flight attendants a significant amount of attorney's fees to get here."

Go figure -- we at New Times weren't immune from expense, either. The pilot, Gannon, attempted to subpoena all our notes after we published a column about the case on January 27. Suffice to say that we didn't suffer much -- unlike the flight attendants, we certainly didn't have to mortgage our house to cover our legal bills. But we're still glad to see the case closed and our heroes vindicated.

There's a lot more to this story, so we'll follow up with a column in our print edition next week. Stay tuned ...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

USAirways Pilot Demands New Times' Notes; Latest in suit Against Whistleblowing Flight Attendants

US Airways Pilot Demands New Times' Notes; Latest in Suit Against Whistleblowing Flight Attendants
By Sarah Fenske in NewsTuesday, Feb. 17 2009 @ 4:05PM

Victor J. Palagano III
These three Phoenix-based crew members face a lawsuit from a US Airways pilot.
Two weeks ago, we told you the shocking story of three local flight attendants facing a lawsuit from a US Airways pilot. Their crime? Daring to report their safety concerns to federal regulators.

Now New Times is getting sucked into the litigation. Henry Stein, the Mesa-based attorney representing First Officer Ed Gannon, filed a subpoena last week demanding that we turn over all our notes, as well as any documents provided to us by the flight attendants. He's also, apparently, attempting to subpoena information about people who've posted messages on the Web site erected by the flight attendants to raise money for their defense. Doesn't this guy have anything better to do?

A little background: As America West Flight 851 was about to leave Calgary, Alberta in 2003, all three flight attendants on board grew alarmed by the presence of some frosty contamination on the wings -- and the pilots' insistence that there was no reason to de-ice them before takeoff. Ice on the wings can be a huge deal; just look at some of the coverage of the Contintental flight that crashed in Buffalo, New York, last week, and you'll get the picture.

Finally, thanks to the flight attendants' persistence, the first officer on Flight 851, Gannon, finally agreed to de-ice. But upon landing in Phoenix, the flight attendants were alarmed enough to report the incident to the FAA.

To them, this was a question of safety. And though the FAA ultimately closed its investigation without taking action, and even agreed to foot the bill for some of First Officer Ed Gannon's attorney's fees, we think it's pretty clear the flight attendants did the right thing by reporting their concerns.

But Gannon didn't take the incident as a teachable moment. Instead, he filed suit against flight attendants Paula Walker, Brian Shunick, and Sue Burris in Maricopa County Superior Court, alleging defamation.

The suit appears to be the very definition of frivolous.

"Flight attendants are not only acting from a moral oligation when they report problems like this, but there's also a statutory rule requiring them to do so," says Daniel S. Riley, an attorney at Curry, Pearson & Wooten representing the flight attendants. And, in Arizona, statements made in reports to agencies like the FAA, the police, the State Bar, or even the Better Business Bureau, are also "immune" from defamation claims, Riley says. The flight attendants were clearly within their rights.

But Judge Christopher Whitten initially resisted dismissing Gannon's claims on summary judgement. (He tossed out some of Gannon's arguments, including "infliction of emotional distress," but kept alive the defamation claim.) As the suit drags on, the flight attendants have been forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars for their defense -- bizarrely, US Airways refuses to cover them.

Now you can add New Times to the list of people being forced to pay lawyers so Gannon can work out his issues in the courtroom. Sigh.

But there is one way we might get off the hook. Last week, the new judge on the case, Judge Louis Araneta, heard the flight attendants' lawyers argue that he should toss the entire case out of court. If the judge does so, and does it soon, we'll be off the hook.

You can bet we're hoping for a good quick verdict on this one. Times are hard enough; who's got money for lawyers?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


It was a cold morning at Calgary International Airport on January 24, 2003. As temperatures dropped to minus 6.3°F. Flight attendants Brian, Paula, and Sue began boarding passengers onto US Flight 851. The three knew that the FAA prohibits flying while frost or ice is present on any wing surface. As they looked out the windows, they saw patches of frost along the wings.
This observation was verified by the Calgary Ground Crew, who wrote the following in an irregularity report:
“At 6:15, my deicing partner Jeff Switner approached a member of the flight crew and, asking if they were going to require a deice. They said no, that they were fine. We were both surprised, because we could see the frost on the wings and fuselage.”
Despite the presence of frost on the wings, the Capt and FO began pushing Flt 851 back for departure. Frantic to prevent any unsafe takeoff, the
FA’s approached the FO and told him that passengers had seen frost on the wings and were concerned about not de-icing. Flt 851 then pushed back into position and deiced.
With quick thinking, the FA’s averted a possible catastrophic safety violation. Yet, when they reported events of that day to the FAA, they weren’t hailed as heroes. They were sued.
On November 20, 2006, the first officer sued Brian, Paula, and Sue in Maricopa County, AZ. The original lawsuit alleged three different causes of action: Defamation, Tortious Interference With Contract, and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.
At his deposition in March 2007, the FO admitted that frost was, in fact, present on the wings of the aircraft:
Brian, Paula, and Sue have paid for their legal defense out of their own pockets. Despite the fact that they were acting in their capacity as airline employees when they reported the events of January 24, 2003, the airline has so far refused to help them in any way with their defense. In fact, the airline has even refused a request from all the parties (even the first officer) that they be prevented from flying with the first officer who is suing them.
FA’s should be allowed to report safety violations, without the threat that they will be dragged into court and have to face the threat of a frivolous lawsuit. Please consider contributing to their legal defense fund, so that they can continue to fight for the right for anyone to report safety violation, whether that person be a member of the flight crew, ground crew, or simply a passenger.
Brian, Paula, and Sue have spent over $65,000 of their own money so far in defending against this meritless lawsuit. They are headed to trial in 2010 and need all the help they can get! Please consider helping them by clicking on the link below. This will direct you to the chipin link: