Read Flight Attendants’ Case Against United

Filed Under: United

Earlier I shared the story of the 13 United flight attendants who were fired for insubordination after refusing to operate a San Francisco to Hong Kong flight which had “BYE BYE” written on the tail cone.


I’m not some overly security conscious person, but I’d find it very strange as well. Now admittedly if someone had bad intentions they probably wouldn’t write a message on the tail of the plane, though it’s still concerning. What I’m most concerned about isn’t the message as such, but how/why someone would write a message on the tail of a plane in a post-9/11 world.

And for that matter, after 9/11 you really can’t make any security related jokes at airports or on airplanes, and at the very least this could be interpreted as one. That’s a standard passengers are consistently held to, and surely it should apply to airport staff as well.

In this case the flight attendants simply requested to have the passengers removed and plane searched, which seems like a perfectly reasonable safety precaution to me. After all, safety is the absolute top priority of airlines.

When I wrote the post earlier I asked what I was missing. Well, Kevin forwarded the case that the flight attendants’ attorney have filed with OSHA, and it’s a fascinating read if you have a few minutes.

If you don’t have the time to read the case, here’s a very brief summary (though there’s much more to it):

  • The “BYE BYE” message was discovered when the first officer did a walk around of the plane, at which point he shared it with the other pilots, but not with the flight attendants (though he mentioned to one that there was a “disturbing image” on the tail)
  • The captain called supervisors and maintenance teams to look at the situation, while telling passengers they were dealing with a mechanical problem, and telling the purser that they were dealing with a “security concern”
  • Eventually all flight attendants learned about what was going on, and expressed concern about the situation, using words in line with their CRM protocol, including “concerned,” “uncomfortable,” and “safe” — the cockpit crew initially echoed the concerns
  • Maintenance crews inspected the tail cone and determined everything was fine, at which point the captain briefed the crew in groups, informing them that it was probably a “cute joke,” and that he was comfortable flying the plane, even though he didn’t know how/when the “joke” happened
  • The flight attendants requested that a full security sweep be done of the aircraft, though they were told that would take too long
  • At this point the base manager issued them a direct order to operate the flight, which is an order flight attendants must comply with unless they think it would endanger their safety
  • After they refused, the flight ended up being canceled, and after an investigation the flight attendants were terminated for “engaging in an act of insubordination” over “perceived and imagined” security concerns

To me this is just insane. There’s no doubt you could argue the crew was paranoid, though I don’t think anyone would argue that they were trying to create problems. Best I can tell they were Hong Kong based, and I’m sure they wanted to go home as much as anyone else. They had no incentive to delay the flight, so it wasn’t labor action, a pissing match with management, etc.

I believe they were genuinely concerned, and if anything, I think the airlines are to blame for creating this paranoia.

It’s amazing to think how in the US flight attendants really can’t be fired for providing crap service, while when they genuinely express concern over safety, that’s ground for termination…

I hope they get their jobs back.

What do you think about this case, given the full filing with OSHA?

  1. >at which point the captain briefed the crew in groups, informing them that it was probably a “cute joke,” and that he was comfortable flying the plane,

    This story should’ve ended here. The buck stops with the pilot.

  2. What if the situation had been reversed, though? I.e., the flight attendants were comfortable proceeding but the pilots were not and decided not to proceed. Would we have called them insubordinate or been criticizing them? Flight attendants may be lower in the hierarchy than pilots but they have decision power too, especially on the aircraft.

    And also they were not requesting that the flight be cancelled, only for rescreening.
    Why then did the airline cancel the flight? It wouldn’t have taken that long to do so, and if they didn’t want to, they could request back up crew?

  3. also i just read the report. Obviously it’s only one side of the story but assuming that the facts in that story are accurate I think the flight attendants will be reinstated. Also the fact that the airline used the word ‘security concerns’ works in the attendants favor- because the airline will have a harder time making the case that the flight attendants “imagined or perceived a threat”.

  4. So glad I never need to fly United. While Delta is the smart ass in the US airline industry and being known as the “evil” one for having ideas that screw up customers and the other airlines will follow, United is the old uncle that family meets once a year during the family reunions and nobody remembers him or wants to interact with him because he still lives in the Stone Age and thinks he is always right.

  5. Ben (not Lucky), you should read the entire complaint.

    I found this interesting: “The Flight Attendants were also aware that, just a week earlier, the Transportation Security Administration had announced enhanced security measures to address a credible threat that terrorists had developed new methods for using onboard explosive devices to destroy airplanes flying to and from the United States.” The rest of the paragraph is likewise interesting.

    I find it disturbing that a pilot would blow the thing off “as a joke” without really knowing for sure if it was a joke.

    They need to find out who wrote that thing and fire that person. And reinstate all of the flight attendants.

  6. it is not within the scope of the air mattresses competencies to hold the plane back, and inconvenience everyone.

  7. @tara, I did read the whole thing.

    The cabin crew is responsible for passenger safety and to certain extent, the airplane. The pilot, however, is responsible for the passengers, the whole airplane, and the cabin crew. This is not to make light of the cabin crew’s responsibilities, merely stating that the pilot has the ultimate responsibility and ultimate authority on what happens, and as such, I believe he or she should have the final say.

    The pilot’s life is at as much of a risk as the crew if there is a threat, and I personally don’t believe a competent pilot would easily “blow the thing off as a joke”.

  8. What bothers me about this story is that some are suggesting the flight attendants are being fired for expressing security concerns, so to not reinstate them would send a message that flight attendants shouldn’t report safety concerns. That’s complete misdirection. They weren’t fired for reporting but for insubordination. Airlines need to rely on all their trained professionals to stay safe, but there also must be a heirarchy. If the captain gives a direct order in a tight spot, you can’t have crew deciding they know better. If the captain decided to fly and the base manager agreed, the crew has a pretty straightforward decision. Fly or do a different job. Nobody is twisting their arm to fly, but they shouldn’t be surprised that the company disciplined them. Second guessing the captain’s decision or having an opinion that you would have done something different in the captain’s shoes misses the point.

    I think this is easier to see if you take the scary terrorism part out of the equation. Imagine the first officer saw something that concerned him in the landing gear on a walk around. After consultation, the captain learns the issue has previously been identified and logged, and the plane has been cleared in this condition pursuant to the correct regulations. He determines the vessel is airworthy and the ground manager and company cocur. If flight attendants said here they weren’t comfortable with that until a repair was done that would take four hours and refused to fly, I think we all would agree discipline is not an improper result.

    Is this different? Well a little, in that a pilot has no special experience with recognizing terrorism that a lay person doesn’t also have. Then again, most pilots aren’t mechanics or engineers either. Based on the one sided story here, I think the pilot maybe should have told his crew that if they really were too bothered to fly, he would support them. But he made a different choice, and while responsible professionalism and judgment should be encouraged at every level of the crew, insubordination has no place in the air.

  9. Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever write:

    I’m with the flight attendants and their union.

    In this day and age, flights are cancelled, people are arrested and jailed, and millions subject to all sorts of inconvenience and indignity for much much less plausible threats than this one. If the pilots did not know exactly how those words got there, I believe they did the wrong thing by treating it as “probably a cute joke”.

  10. Although I’m not a line pilot, I just want to offer my two cents based on my limited ATP training. I think this is a great example of proper CRM, which was demonstrated by the FAs expressing their safety concerns and taking the initiative regardless of the fact that their higher ranked colleagues(PIC & Station manager) thought about the situation.

    From only what I can gather in this report, which is only one side of the story, between the timeframe described in page 10(when captain last displayed his concern) and page 12(when the captain announced that he was comfortable flying), he did not actually received additional information other than the hypothetical theory that the drawings were from ICN and that nothing was found in the APU. From the PIC’s perspective, that’s not a whole lot of information to change his mind: meaning that there could be other thing that went on in the cockpit that influenced him(hypothetically speaking it could be pressure from the ACP and other executives). Based on the description in the 4th paragraph of page 13, I think both the ACP and the PIC’s actions were unprofessional, and in the eyes of the FAs could be deemed as worthy of taking actions.

    Based what was described in the report, the station manager did not play a positive role either. She refused all reasonable requests made by the crew, refused to give them time to make decisions, even cut them off multiple times in a rude manner. Although they were given direct orders, their handbook had stated that they had the right to refuse the order if they believe that otherwise their safety could be endangered.

    It is worth noting that out of the 15 FAs onboard, both the pursers had agreed to fly, therefore were not given direct orders.

    I feel I should also point out that United should have had reserve crews for the 747 type at its SFO base given the time of the day, although I have no way of knowing. The fact that the flight was still cancelled might indicate something.

    I’m happy to answer any questions although my experience is very limited. I would also be grateful if anyone can correct any errors in my opinion

  11. @Larry ; I agree with your points and comments. I would however still stop short of calling it insubordinate.
    Just because higher ups disagree with their decision does not make it insubordination.

    And it seems that the SFO controller, Virginia Coronado, did not help the situation either with her attitude.

  12. In addition what I mentioned above, I also want to make a comparison of this incident with the Koreanair ‘Nutgate’ at JFK last month. While I don’t want to make this comparison since they are different situations, they are similar I’m that the crew(although only the FAs in the case of the United flight) were given orders from executives at the airline. We know now that what Heather Cho did was not right, however the Pilot In Command excecuded the order. Lets stop and think for a moment the concequences the PIC might face had he decided to not obey the order and the incident didn’t attract public interest, he would’ve likely lost his job for not taking orders from the executive.

    Now lets go back the United incident. If something was to happen to that flight, and the details were to be exposed, like it eventually did for the Koreanair flight, the executives, station manager, ACP, even PIC would be under heavy scrutiny and will likely face jail time.

    While I agree the PIC of the KE flight had the say in the situation and ‘theoretically’ did the right thing; the 13 FAs also had the right to refuse the direct order as long as it was due to legitimate safety concern. So in the end, I think the FAs’ fate will ultimately come down to how they classify the incident.

  13. “It’s amazing to think how in the US flight attendants really can’t be fired for providing crap service, while when they genuinely express concern over safety, that’s ground for termination…”

    hear hear. could not have said it any better.

  14. @Adi_T >And it seems that the SFO controller, Virginia Coronado, did not help the situation either with her attitude.

    Gee, there’s a shock – UA management @ SFO having a bad attitude…

    @Larry >Airlines need to rely on all their trained professionals to stay safe, but there also must be a heirarchy. If the captain gives a direct order in a tight spot, you can’t have crew deciding they know better.

    As described in the OSHA letter, that’s not the way the law works.

    @Anon (or the Stig, I’m not sure which) >it is not within the scope of the air mattresses competencies to hold the plane back, and inconvenience everyone.

    Actually, it is – both under federal law and UA’s own policies.

    As said before, there’s more to this story, but I think they’re going to get reinstated.


  15. A few notes:

    UA flights ex-SFO are not operated by foreign based crews, per se. Yes, a contingent of foreign FAs certainly work these flights, but there will be US-based cabin crew as well. Purser on SFO-HKG is normally U.S.-based.

    Ramp rats routinely write notes/images in brake dust, though I’ve never known someone to leave a tag on such a visible place. This was a stupid lack of judgement. Ramp workers (baggage handlers) often trash each others’ sports teams, etc. in the thick dust coatings near landing gear. Example: JFK workers trash talking BOS teams, or vice versa.

    I’m with the FAs. Good luck to them.

  16. We had incidents where planes get grounded / diverted because some Middle Eastern looking guys were speaking Arabic and as far as I’m aware no one was ever fired.

    Now we have an incident where whether a joke or not someone attempted to make a threat and that’s completely fine with United?

    Pilots have basic training in the mechanics of an airplane. Nevertheless, from my extensive experience flying, they will always pull in an engineer to investigate and clear the plane. In this incident, I’m not seeing anywhere mentioning that they’ve alerted law enforcement or gotten an all clear from law enforcement. It seems like United management determined that it’s safe and the captain went alone with.

  17. The photo does not depict a 747; yanks always saying ‘post 9/11 world’ is annoying & self-absorbed; and ‘concerning’ is a preposition, not an adjective. HTH!

  18. How the hell was someone able to climb up to the tail and draw that graffiti and not get caught? What kind of airport security is that? This goes way beyond “hierarchy” and “chain of command.” This is a serious security breach. And if the captain and the airline managers couldn’t comprehend that, then they should be fired, not the flight attendants.

  19. “It’s amazing to think how in the US flight attendants really can’t be fired for providing crap service, while when they genuinely express concern over safety, that’s ground for termination…” I second that point wholeheartedly.

  20. Peter…your information is not quite correct. For the flights to/from HKG they are operated mostly by the HKG crews. The flight to/from SFO is staffed fully with HKG crews. The flight to/from ORD is staffed with mixed crews, but at times it is soley HKG based. The purser on the HKGORD flight is HKG based. I believe depending on the season the same can happen for the FRA, LHR, and NRT flights where the flights are soley staffed with the foreign bases.

  21. Jonathan, as you noted it’s a one side account of the story, so it’s quite impossible to know what additional information was provided to the pilots prior to the PIC stating he was comfortable making the flight. I don’t know much about CRM, but if the FAs used the term “uncomfortable” as one of the CUS words, wouldn’t the term “comfortable” as stated by the PIC serve to indicate the pilot had assessed the concern and based on his evaluation of the situation based on information available to him (which per the complaint was more than the FAs) was “good to go”.

    At what point in a CRM evolution does the person in a better position to make a decision get to override the lesser person?

  22. Greg, I agree with you, simply because the legal standard is they only needed to have a belief of a credible threat. Whether or not they actually had the training, experience and situational knowledge to determine if there actually was a credible threat is irrelevant as long as they believed there was one.

    The failure here was that United was unable to properly provide the FAs with convincing evidence that there was no credible threat.

    From reading the complaint, it appears to be a result of:
    1. Previous attempts by UA management at withholding information from flight crew leading to a distrust of management.
    2. Actual and possible with holding of situational information during the particular incident.
    3. Lack of proper security training for FAs so they cannot accurately recognize a real credible threat
    4. When they failed to provide FAs with convincing evidence, using tactics to attempt to force compliance.

    All of that points to a bad management culture at UA, something many have known for years but no correction has ever came, and I doubt it ever will.

  23. Joe, a security breach is the result of unauthorized access to the aircraft. There’s no evidence in this situation that a security breach occurred. Indeed the location of the drawings would point to someone with authorized access deciding to be funny which while being unprofessional and possibly a policy violation, it’s not a security breach.

  24. So many people, so many armchair legal experts. For the dolts who think this is a reason that United is somehow different than Delta or another airline, your partisanship and obvious disdain for United makes it clear that you are unable to ever decide something impartially–and the rest of us gladly bid you bon voyage on whatever different airline or business venture you choose. For the dolts who are trying to use this example to comment on airlines or airline security in general, please stop flying–the paranoia and fear you obviously have is tantamount to complete insecurity in anything besides your bedside.

    The FAs have the right to express their concern over safety, but that doesn’t mean there is a legitimate safety concern. The pilot decided it was safe to fly, and current airline and FAA regulations give the pilot the final say when it comes to crew concerns in such matters. If you don’t like the airline or FAA regulations–tough beans.

    The FAs exercised their right to not work the flight, and the flight was canceled. United chose to exercise its right to terminate those FAs because those FAs chose not to follow the airline and FAA regulations in its opinion. A court will ascertain whether or not that opinion was justified.

    At best, United walks away with removing some FAs it likely wanted to dismiss anyway (remember, United was giving early outs to senior FAs in order to bring some youth into its FA ranks and allow it to get the FA union contracts merged at long last). At worst, United will settle with the FAs, who will still be terminated but likely get a buyout/settlement, which is pretty much what United was offering FAs in its buyout offer anyway.

    The FAs chose badly, but they are entitled to choose badly. But choice comes with consequences, and some people believe that an FA opinion should somehow ground a flight. If that were permitted to happen, the airline flight system would come to a crashing halt for our society, and so it is a good thing that they don’t have that power. FAs may be involved in passenger safety, but theirs is not the final say in passenger safety FOR GOOD REASON.

  25. @Jonathan

    Thank you for sharing the insights. I do wonder the role of the Captain(who is the one with highest authority) and the role of the rest of the crew in (different types of) decision-making processes, and how are they balanced. If every member can do what they want then there’s no such thing as authority, on the other hand there have been incidents where over-respect of the Captain has led to serious consequences.

  26. These days we have flight cancellations and diversions for the smallest of security concerns, many of which may also be perceived rather than real, so UA’s claim that the FAs were in the wrong because they imagined the threat is a bit dubious. We should also note that the FAs did not cancel the flight, or request that the flight be canceled. That was the airline’s decision. The airline had other options that may have caused delays without a cancellation. The one that comes to mind is to bring in back up crew- though I’m not privy to how that works or how many back up crew they have at SFO.

    Finally, what if the situation were reversed and the flight attendants and ground control were fine with going ahead but the pilots did not want to? Would they have been fired too ?

    “It’s amazing to think how in the US flight attendants really can’t be fired for providing crap service, while when they genuinely express concern over safety, that’s ground for termination…”
    “Truer words were never spoken!

    So what happens now ?How long will OSHA take to make a ruling, and has UA commented on the matter?

  27. @ Bill – You say “United chose to exercise its right to terminate those FAs because those FAs chose not to follow the airline and FAA regulations in its opinion. A court will ascertain whether or not that opinion was justified.”

    After accusing your fellow readers as being “dolts”, you add: “The FAs chose badly, but they are entitled to choose badly.”

    Maybe the courts will decide that the FA’s chose correctly? In your own words, “your partisanship…makes it clear that you are unable to ever decide something impartially”.

  28. ” …after 9/11 you really can’t make any security related jokes at airports or on airplanes, and at the very least this could be interpreted as one.”

    Huh? Now saying (or writing) “bye-bye” is a security concern?

    There is a word for this. It is “bullshit”.

  29. I find it a bit odd that the captain didn’t back up his crew who were clearly concerned! If somebody can reach that high on a 747 (obviously using equipment) with nobody noticing then what else could they have done? I understand the commander has ultimate responsibility of the aircraft but would you possibly risk your life based on somebody elses opinion, because that was what it was, an opinion that there was no threat, when in reality we don’t know this as the flight was eventually cancelled. Who knows what may have happened on board if it wasnt. This sends out a frightening message to uniteds staff, raise a safety concern that we dont agree on and put your job on the line, not the kind of safety culture I would like to be part of. Shame on them for sacking employees with best intentions at heart.

  30. Airline looks right here. How in the world is this a security concern requiring a search for explosive devices? Any crazy demand doesn’t need to be met.

  31. FA’s were correct. Would never happen in Oz. Aircraft and PAX would have been thoroughly searched.

    It’s no wonder out national air line is the safest in the world. ( No 1) Go Qantas. I love this great iconic airline

  32. You, sir, are an idiot. You are just plain wrong. What you write is laughable to anyone with any sense or actual knowledge of aviation.

    “I’m not some overly security conscious person…” Nonsense. Yes, you are. If you think this represents a real threat, you have become utterly terrorized to the point where you can not rationally function in a modern society. You have no clue whatsoever what constitutes a legitimate, real-world security risk, despite your pretentious to the contrary. Stay home, in bed, and hide under the covers!

    I am a commercial pilot. As pointed out above, it is the cockpit crew’s responsibility to assess the risk. They have the expertise, the training, and the responsibility to make that determination. Not the flight attendants. Not some self-appointed so-called expert blogger – what a joke! The captain is the final authority. Period, end of story. That’s why he is the captain. That this simple fact is completely lost on you only shows your ignorance.

    You say “I think the airlines are to blame for creating this paranoia.” No, they are not. YOU – and all the other easily spooked idiots out there who demand nudie-scopes, body cavity searches and other horrors of the security state are to blame for creating this paranoia – are. YOU are. The guvmint and the airlines are just giving you what you ask for. YOU are why we can’t have nice things.

  33. The captain is the final authority. Period, end of story.

    No, he’s not. That’s the way it was before CRM – it’s not that way any more.

    Why is it not that way anymore? Captain’s like Veldhuyzen van Zanten.

  34. @Lucky 😀 Good thing Ron is only a commercial pilot not ATP. Did scientists discover a new mint called guvmint? I would love to try it 😉

  35. They “simply” wanted to deplane everyone and do a sweep?

    How thorough did they expect the sweep to be? Just some dogs, or to take the plane apart.

    If terrorists had access to the tail, you’d think they’d put the bomb somewhere hidden away and not inside the cabin.

    And if that’s the case, what would a simple sweep accomplish.

  36. Can’t believe I was actually on that flight and all I got was a silly $350 voucher to be delayed 24 hours….no one knew this is the reason why our plane didn’t take off that day!!!!

  37. What ever happened to Crew Resource Management? Is that over now? I thought that the hierarchy flattening insured that any member of the crew could bring safety concerns forward. Remember Lexington, Kentucky? The pilots attempted to take off on an unlit runway that was too short. They ran into a field and killed everyone on board except the co-pilot. Would you have fired the flight attendant who objected to being on the wrong runway? The more people who have a voice in advocating safe practices, the better. A rigid hierarchy is dangerous. United Airlines should be fined for disciplining members of a crew whose responsibility is to report safety issues and to STOP the line until the problems are addressed.

  38. As you probably have learned the, 13 flight attendants were reinstated yesterday with a settlement , including not to pursue their OSHA case. As much as I think United knew they were going to lose this case.It’s also proof that the flight attendants were in the right. During the times of legacy United this would never have happened. The supervisor at that time was terminated, but it should never gotten to that point. Legacy United always had a good relationship , but not perfect, with our union safety committee. Now that Continental’s management is in charge , the relationship doesn’t exist. Good luck flying the friendly skies!

  39. Despite assertions of entering the 21st century, Airline Executives continue to engage in aberrant and hostile action inconsistent with safe flight operations and customer service. The executives also demonstrate a persistent and aggressive culture of covering up questionable to criminal conduct.
    For those who feel only Captains should have authority to make decisions: see Korean Airline crash history, U.S. airline deicing incident, etc. especially Ron who thinks only cockpit crews (and not cabin crews) have the expertise, training and responsibility to determine security risk.

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