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, www.helpflightattendantcrew.blogspot.com, 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.