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 ...