United to reinstate 13 flight attendants fired for walking off

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Via SFGATE: In January 2015, the attendants filed a federal whistle-blower complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The attendants and United, in a joint statement issued Tuesday, said they had reached a confidential settlement that included reinstatement for the employees. Other terms were not disclosed.

“The safety of our employees and customers is paramount. We respect the right of our employees to raise concerns in good faith about the safety or security of our operations, and encourage them to do so,” said Sam Risoli, United’s senior vice president of inflight services.

David Marshall, a partner with the law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks who represented the flight attendants, welcomed the deal. “The protections that federal law provides to airline workers are essential to the safety of passenger airline operations,” he said. “I’m glad that United and these flight attendants have come to a resolution that underscores the importance of these laws for airlines and their employees.”

Neither side would say whether money changed hands or provide additional comments.

The Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, had no comment because it was not involved in the settlement and has not brought charges against United, said Brian Hawthorne, a labor department spokesman. “If the flight crew opted to settle out of court with United, that’s between them and their lawyers,” he said.

The flight in question, United 869, was preparing for its 1:55 p.m. departure from SFO on July 14, 2014, when an image was discovered on the plane’s tail cone. Someone had scrawled “BYE BYE” in six-inch letters above two faces, “one smiling and the other with a more troubling expression that could be described as frowning or devilish,” the complaint said.

The image was near the access panel to a gas turbine engine housed in the tail cone that was about 30 feet off the ground, an area accessible only by authorized personnel using specialized equipment, the complaint said. The images could have been written on the plane at SFO or before its departure from South Korea’s Incheon International Airport.

One of four pilots on the flight discovered and photographed the image. He shared the photo with the other pilots and told one flight attendant he had seen a “disturbing image” on the aircraft, according to the complaint. He requested a visual inspection of the engine compartment and removal of the image, the complaint said.

Eventually all flight attendants saw the photo. Passengers were allegedly told the delay was due to a maintenance issue.

Maintenance inspectors finished searching the engine compartment and found nothing suspicious, but did not investigate other portions of the plane, the complaint said. Capt. Willard Bowman told flight attendants he was comfortable with the plane’s safety and security.

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Photo: Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP

 

Coronado ordered the 13 flight attendants to work, but they refused, some saying they would work only if United provided a different plane. Flight attendants must comply with a direct order unless it would endanger the health or safety of crew or passengers, the complaint says.

Sometime after 3:30 p.m., a United customer service agent came aboard and announced that the flight was canceled because of “crew availability,” the complaint says.

“All of FAA’s and United’s own safety procedures were followed, including a comprehensive safety sweep prior to boarding, and the pilots, mechanics and safety leaders deemed the aircraft entirely safe to fly,” United said in an email last year.

Following an investigation by a United Airlines labor relations specialist and a grievance hearing in Hong Kong, the flight attendants were terminated in October 2014.

When the complaint was filed, one of the fired flight attendants lived in the Bay Area, the others in Hong Kong or Singapore.

Kathleen Pender is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: kpender@sfchronicle.com Blog:http://blog.sfgate.com/pender Twitter: @kathpender

 

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