United Airlines fired 13 flight attendants who refused to fly on a plane after “someone had written threatening words and drawn menacing images” on the aircraft near its tail, according to a complaint filed this week with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The words “BYE BYE” were written in 6-inch letters in oil residue on the jumbo jet’s tail cone above two faces, one smiling and another “with a more troubling expression that could be described as frowning or devilish,” according to the complaint.
The 13 flight attendants from the July 14 San Francisco flight on a 747-400 aircraft bound for Hong Kong refused to fly, fearing a security threat. They claim they were fired improperly.
United spokeswoman Christen David said the Chicago-based airline will defend the litigation “vigorously.”
“Our flight operations, safety and maintenance teams appropriately investigated and determined there was no credible security threat,” she said. The airline said all its safety procedures as well as those of the Federal Aviation Administration were followed, “including a comprehensive safety sweep prior to boarding.”
“The pilots, mechanics and safety leaders deemed the aircraft entirely safe to fly,” she said.
The flight attendants refused to fly when the airline would not deplane passengers and conduct a security screening of the aircraft, according to the complaint, filed Monday. They believed the potential threat, possibly an explosive, could endanger the lives of more than 300 passengers and crew, it said. The flight was ultimately canceled.
“In the interest of maintaining its flight schedule at all costs, United first tried to bully the flight attendants into flying, and, when they refused to accede to company threats, accused them of ‘insubordination’ and fired them all,” the complaint alleges.
The flight attendants’ lawyer, David J. Marshall, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks, said, “Our clients did exactly what the flying public would expect from a group of highly experienced airline professionals. … Our clients are entitled to legal protection for doing what was right.”
The flight attendants allege their termination was a violation of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, a law that protects whistleblowers in the airline industry from retaliation for reporting air-safety issues.
Together, the flight attendants had 299 years of experience, each with at least 18 years at United, the complaint noted.
The flight attendants ask to be reinstated with back pay and compensatory damages.