13 Flight Attendants Fired For Insubordination… HUH?!?

Filed Under: United

Here’s an absolutely crazy story. Via USA Today:

Thirteen flight attendants who were fired by United Airlines for refusing to fly from San Francisco to Hong Kong because of a security concern have filed a federal complaint to get their jobs back.

Before United Flight 869 took off July 14, crewmembers noticed the words “BYE BYE” and two faces drawn in oily residue on the plane’s tail, according to the 26-page complaint filed Tuesday with the Labor Department. One face was smiling but the other was “devilish,” the complaint said.

Here’s the picture of “BYE BYE” and the faces drawn on the tail of the 747:


The flight attendants refused to fly unless all the passengers were taken off and the plane was screened for explosives. The flight ended up being canceled due to lack of crew, and 13 flight attendants got fired due to “insubordination.”

And now they’ve filed a complaint with OSHA:

The complaint filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration contends that the workers are protected as whistle-blowers from retaliation for reporting air safety and security threats. The flight attendants are seeking reinstatement, back pay and compensatory damages.

One of the flight attendants, Grace Lam, said the fired workers “were not willing to bow to United’s pressure to ignore an unresolved security threat even though the company made clear that we risked losing our jobs.”

Quite possibly the most shocking part of this story, though, is just how junior the crew was:

David Marshall, who filed the complaint as a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks, said the flight attendants with a combined 299 years of experience were worried about security threats after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March and a Transportation Security Administration warning about consumer electronics the week before the flight.

Only 299 years of experience for the 13 flight attendants?! šŸ˜‰

In all honesty, I’m at a loss here. I’d be freaked the hell out if I saw that drawn on the tail of a plane, and think the flight attendants were totally justified in their concern. It’s one thing to say they overreacted, but to fire them over expressing security concerns? Huh?!? There must be more to this story…?

What do you think? Were the flight attendants justified in their concern, and did they deserve to be fired over this?

(Tip of the hat to Kevin)

  1. While it is very sad that they got fired I could not help but laughing at the “bye bye” on the tail. I think all flight attendants should have the right to choose what routes they do not want to go on if it is a matter of safety.

  2. United wanted to layoff flight attendants but did not want to give them compensation packages. So UNITED drew the Bye Bye on the plane to freak them out knowing they would be concerned. They subsequently fired them for insubordination.


  3. The only people who would have access to that area would be the maintenance crew, right? I wouldn’t have been so worried about a bomb as I would about sabotage. All it takes is one disgruntled guy..

    Certainly, some unauthorized activity occurred.

  4. Brian,

    Paranoid? Maybe, but someone who has close contact with the aircraft acted very unprofessionally. I’d have wanted a senior maintenance guy to give it a quick inspection.

  5. Highly unlikely that anyone would plant explosives on a plane, then post a smiley face warning on the tail. And I really doubt that the average age of the flight attendants was 23. Canceling that flight was super expensive for UA, and doesn’t seem to me to be a decision to be made by junior flight attendants. Ultimately that decision should be up to airport security, UA security, and the captain.

    Hopefully there is an intense investigation going on to determine who pulled this stunt. Not only because of the cost to UA, but also the massive inconvenience to the displaced passengers.

  6. The employees make a commitment to fly every day relying on the safety the company and the co-workers provide. They do not have the opportunity to self evaluate every decision and action taken and choose when and how they work outside of the contract. If they do not trust the judgement of their employer they have the right to leave but otherwise perform their jobs. They have the right to raise concerns and seek a response but must perform their job regardless of the response or quit the company.

  7. @ Robert Hanson – The average age wasn’t 23. If the 13 flight attendants had 299 combined years of experience, their average *years of experience* is 23. Not their age.

  8. They need to find out who executed that foolish prank. I don’t blame any of them for not wanting to fly b4 checking it out – not in this day and age.

  9. I’m not sure if the “pusher” on that graphic is devilish as the complaint alleges or is ethnic. One could argue the slant in the eye and soul patch (or is it a stuck out tongue?) is driving to a different message.

    Wondering if that graphic would have survived a trip across the Pacific or not and if it could have been done over there before a TPAC or if it was fresh and had to have been done at SFO.

  10. Given the events today in Paris re: cartoons that resulted in death, I would think the FA’s have a very strong case…

  11. “There must be more to this storyā€¦?”

    Yeah, there’s the part where they never get their jobs back.

    Most whistleblowers in the US lose their jobs (and their careers) permanently.

    If they’re extremely lucky they might receive some compensation while they train for a new career.

  12. Seems like a “clean me” drawn on the tail since the plane looks filthy.

    I agree, only the maintenance crew (or baggage handlers) could have drawn it, and has nothing to do with the passengers.

  13. it’s not a “devilish” drawing, but a racist one. They should definitely try to find out who did it and fire them as well (or worse – I don’t know the rules).
    But Surely it would make no sense for a terrorist to announce their intention this way. It should be up to the pilot, or airport security to decide if there is a threat to the aircraft, not the crew. There is always some risk involved in flying (and the risk of a terror attack) and there was no reason to assume the risk was greater in this case. So it was probably correct to fire them. Two possible scenarios are that they encouraged each other in collective hysteria and paranoia, rather than keeping calm (which is not good), or else that they knew that they would “time out” before a bomb sweep could be completed, and this was thus a way to avoid working.

  14. Also, think about what would happen if individual crew members had the right to refuse to fly specific flights. Forget ever actually flying anywhere, it would make running an airline next to impossible. There is a reason why the pilot is specifically given the power to make decisions like delaying and canceling a flight due to security concerns, or throwing passengers off. Hopefully the pilots will be trained well enough that they would make the right call.

  15. Sure it is paranoid, but isn’t what flying in the US became? It’s the same thing as saying the word bomb or the prohibition to bring water onboard.

  16. The important part of the article to me is this:

    The flight attendants refused to fly unless the more than 300 passengers were taken off the Boeing 747-400 and the plane was searched thoroughly for explosives, according to the complaint.

    It wasn’t that they arbitrarily refused to fly. It was that they refused to fly unless the aircraft was comprehensively searched for explosives.

    To me, that’s not unreasonable and not insubordination.

    And we wonder why UA F/A’s are so often grumpy…


  17. The average amount of seniority for this cabin crew is 23 years. That sounds about right for an international flight. As far as the cabin crew not wanting to fly, I think they were spot on, there was an obvious message. The plane should have been searched and reinspected. I hope this crew wins their jobs back and back pay. United needs to be taught the lesson here. Front line employees are any company’s, first line of defense. That should be respected.

  18. The flight attendants refused to fly unless the more than 300 passengers were taken off the Boeing 747-400 and the plane was searched thoroughly for explosives, according to the complaint.

    That section of the tail is what, 15, 20 feet in the air? It doesn’t make any sense to ask for the passengers to be re-screened, if a passenger was able to get out on the tarmac with a 20′ ladder and shimmy up and draw on the tail – they have bigger problems.

    Now, that there was unauthorized access to the plane on the ground, that makes sense. But, that it would have been a passenger, or a passenger working in cahoots with the ground crew? That makes no sense.

    Are we sure this was reported correctly?

  19. @Mark Another vote for racist, not devilish. I’d also argue the tongue/soul patch is neither but a buck tooth, which further adds to the racist caricature.

  20. @ John — That’s not how I interpret it. I think they wanted passengers removed so that they could properly screen the aircraft.

  21. Anyone who thinks that the oily-finger-painting on that jet represents any threat whatsoever is a complete moron. Oh boo too, so scary, the terrorists gonna get us all! Save me, save me, lordy, go ahead Mister TSA screener, do a rectal probe to ensure nothing is hidden up there!

    Shame, shame, shame on you for such ignorant fear-mongering. The next time you complain about the idiocy of “security theater”, look yourself in the mirror, because it’s YOU who are responsible.

    Come on, grow a pair! Stop cowering behind your mama’s skirts. This is utter hysteria on the part on willfully ignorant fools without any of the common sense that god gave the snails. Jeeeezus!

  22. Yeah, terrorists are going to advertise and jeopardize a bombing plot by drawing a smiley face on the back of the plane. That being said, if I saw that on the back of my plane I’d probably try to rebook and take the next flight.

  23. I wouldn’t have interpreted that message as a threat, so I think this is kind of goofy. And I don’t think it qualifies as retaliating against a whistle-blower if you fire the whistle-lower for refusing to do his job.

  24. >Shame, shame, shame on you for such ignorant fear-mongering.

    @”VoiceofReason” I’m going to assume from your diatribe that you have no experience or understanding of the operations of commercial airlines.

    This isn’t just about security. It’s also about the ability of crew members to raise concerns about what they view as a problem with the aircraft and the flight. Crew members have to be able to raise those concerns without fear.

    Safe airlines operate with a strong culture of Crew Resource Management, where the input of *all* of the crew members with respect to flight safety is viewed as critical and acted on. The failure to incorporate such principles into flight training is what led to any number of Korean Air, Singapore, Air France and other airline disasters.

    The problem here is that, at least based upon this article (and I’m sure there are more facts of which we’re unaware that may change this), it appears that UA F/A’s will now take away the message that if you speak out about security issues in a way that impairs the commercial operations of the airline, you might get fired. That’s the wrong message to be sending to employees.

    I truly hope that the facts are different, and that they were fired because of some sort of union sickout, etc., because if they were fired under the circumstances described in this article, UA is not as safe an airline as I always thought they were.


  25. 13 fewer paranoid FAs. Not a bad thing. Hopefully this is the start of sanity returning to ‘Murica.

  26. I cannot believe this thread.

    Given the mysterious circumstances regarding MH370, why not proceed caustiously.

    Ben, if you were about to board the plane and you saw that drawing, wouldn’t you be a bit spooked? I certainly would raise the issue with the purser.

  27. Rampers/MX do so much crap behind the scenes. Just a crappy joke. Don’t fire the stupid stewards and stewardesses, but holy crap, not an issue. Not freaky at all. I’d be more freaked taking off heavy and striking a bird.

  28. Regardless of whether it was right or not to cancel the flight, the maxim is it’s always better to be safe.
    To fire a flight attendant for insubordination in such circumstances is ethically questionable and also bullying. The airline execs may be the ultimate decision makers, but for any given flight it’s the pilot and cabin manager who are proximally responsible for the safety of the passengers- not someone sitting in an office far away.

    I would fire the person on the ramp who drew that rather than the flight attendants. But based on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of workplace regulations and law, I predict they will be reinstated.

  29. If I was boarding that plane, I wouldn’t have seen that drawing because it is underneath the rear exhaust outlet for the APU, unless the aircraft was on a parking bay and we happened to pass it on the bus.

    I think both parties handled the situation badly. They could have called for an explosives sniffer dog to go through the aircraft without deplaning everyone and, if the passengers were oblivious to the writing on the tail, could have passed it off as a drug search. However because of the location of the graffiti, I would have been more worried about sabotage of the aircraft.

    The pilot doing the walk-around should have seen it before any passengers or crew, and if they did and decided it was a stupid prank, then the cabin crew are also calling the judgement of the pilots into question. Which also sends out the wrong message with regard to Crew Resource Management.

  30. Hell as a passenger if I knew that was on the tail I wouldn’t be flying. Totally inappropriate to fire the staff.

  31. I would be concerned that the person who drew the image on the tail might also have access to sensitive parts of the plane. That person should be fired, not the flight attendants. Nobody should be drawing anything on an aircraft.

    I didn’t read the complaint yet, what did the pilots think? Surely they noticed too, or a flight attendant brought it to their attention.

  32. Whatever happened to “See something, Say something” ? I think the FA were justified in raising the alarm. However, I would have had maintenance check the plane rather than worry about the passengers trying to pull something. Clearly someone with access to secure areas of the airport had written that on the tail and I would want to make sure there wasn’t something done to the plane by a deranged ground crew member. Did we already forget the Delta gun smuggling story from like 3 weeks ago involving baggage handler?

  33. Sorry. It was a gross overreaction on the part of the flight attendants. And it was insubordination.

    To me this story is less about a potential terrorist threat and more about a group of over privileged flight attendants on some power trip.

    They got what they deserved.

  34. How could anyone reach that area of the plane except the maintenance crew? Nobody, fire the whole lot and move on with people that a ounce of common sense. Incidentally, attorneys are like Parana
    the fed on anything alive.

  35. In order for some one to make this drawing, they have to able to get up to tail of a B747. That is just about 20 feet from the ground. There are pieces of aircraft loading equipment that could get a person to that area of the plane. But one using that equipment adjacent to the passenger terminal would have easily been spotted. So, more than likely this was done away from the passenger terminal. What if this drawing was done by an irate United employee? What else could this “irate employee” have done? I don’t think the flight attendants were out of line for questioning or boycotting this flight. What does”bye,bye” mean? What about the drawn figures pointing at the happy face by the devilish face? If some one made these drawings on paper and put them in an employee mailbox at my company, there would be a major investigation. What do these drawings mean?

  36. Did United give the passengers the choice of riding that tainted plane to Hong Kong, a 14+ hour flight, by alerting them to the situation? Probably not, only the flight attendants and crew were aware of the situation. I’d take that as an insult if I were a passenger, and a case for hugh mistrust in communication!

  37. I swear that (a) I hadn’t read the complaint when I made my comment, and (b) I don’t work for UA.

    The fact that the arguments I made dovetail almost perfectly with those made in the complaint to OSHA is just illustrative of the fact that the problems here with UA’s conduct are just obvious, and even I can figure out what they are.

    If you’re not able to see how it’s a problem, you’re not actually thinking about this, and you have either (i) a kneejerk negative reaction to anything related to security (yes, you @”VoiceofReason”), or you have a problem with UA F/A’s generally.


  38. This story is a bit light on the details compared to other versions out there. The flight attendants absolutely were in their rights to raise the issue and make their concerns noted.

    However they then went on to refuse to perform their jobs because they did not agree with handling of the situation by “the pilots, mechanics and safety leaders” who deemed the plane fit to fly without the additional screening requested. So you had the least qualified group attempting to override decisions made by the more qualified group.

    As there is no indication that their terminations were as a result of reporting the issue to federal authorities, I doubt they qualify for whistle blower protections

  39. greg99, I just read the OSHA complaint and while I’d agree the airline made several errors in handling the issue I can’t get behind your arguments. I feel that the FAs crossed the line out of their own personal fear and ignorance (some of which was contributed to by previous actions of UA).

    According to the complaint, they were allowed to raise their concerns to 3 separate groups of people, and while the discussions were cursory, management did appear to try to address them as best they could given the situation (a boarded aircraft where they did not want to unnecessarily spook the passengers.) At that point based on what is in the complaint, each FA decided to refuse to fly not based on any credible evidence but how they read the situation and their mistrust of their employer.

    The legal standard quoted in the OSHA complaint, is whether there was a credible threat to aircraft safety. From an objective standpoint there was not, there’s no evidence of a security breach (which would be access to the aircraft by an unauthorized individual), whether the drawing is menacing or threatening is based entirely on individual interpretation (my first thought when seeing it was an immature act by one of the ground crew), and the presence of the drawing by itself is not an indication that the security sweep in Korea was not properly done.

    What might be the saving grace for the flight attendants though is that there doesn’t have to be an actual credible threat to the aircraft, they just have to believe there is one which they evidently did.

  40. That is a really creepy and unsettling drawing/message – cryptic and pscychotic. There needs to be an investigation into who could have access to the tail 30 feet off the ground to do that.

  41. My mom worked in a mental hospital and one time one of the schizophrenics made her a creepy childish drawing of fish in a bowl captioned with something along the lines of “Im going to get you”….I cannot remember verbatim. I dont see the drawing on the plane as innocent – I see it as disturbed and they were 100% right to raise concerns and their vigilance should not have been punished…Who is to say they didnt prevent a disaster?

  42. I’m an Aircraft Mechanic at an airline, grafitti on airplanes is common. Mechanics do it at oily spots, Baggage Handlers do it inside the cargo compartments. If I was the mechanic on that aircraft and saw that this was a problem I would have immediatly gone back to the tail with my lift truck, cleaned the area, and accomplished a detailed inspection of the tail cone area and inside the aft compartment. Then I would write it up in the logbook and brief the Captain and Lead Flight Attendant, and entire cabin crew, if necessary. Probably would have been enough to save the flight.

  43. A retired captain with one of the legacy airlines … I am dumbfounded the captain did not lead “refusal to fly” until a thorough security inspection completed. A B-747 … 90% sure flying international overseas. Still looking for wreckage of Air Malaysia’s flight.

    Terrorism affects not only passengers … but flight crews as well. We are parents, children of loved ones.

    Good for the flight attendants holding fast.

  44. Grace was my FA during a recent UA flight and provided excellent service. I’m glad to see she got her job back.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *