United Rehires Flight Attendants Fired For Insubordination

Filed Under: United

Last January I wrote about the story of 13 United flight attendants who were fired for insubordination. They were working United flight 869 from San Francisco to Hong Kong on July 14, 2014, and noticed the words “BYE BYE” and two faces drawn in oily residue near the plane’s tail:


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.”

I wrote a follow-up post with their case against United, which showed a fascinating chain of events. To summarize it very briefly:

  • 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

It sure seems like the flight attendants weren’t out of line and were genuinely scared, perhaps only worsened by the poor communication throughout the situation.

Over a year later, there’s finally an update to this story. United and the terminated flight attendants have reached a resolution, as all 13 flight attendants have been rehired, and the complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been withdrawn:

United Airlines and 13 flight attendants that the company relieved of their duties in October 2014 announced on March 8, 2016, that they have reached a resolution to their disagreement.

The flight attendants filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under AIR 21. As part of the settlement, United will reinstate the flight attendants to their duties and the flight attendants will withdraw their OSHA filing. The remaining terms of the resolution reached between the parties are confidential.

“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. “We welcome these flight attendants back to our team.”

Bottom line

I’m happy to see that these flight attendants got their jobs back. They had genuine safety concerns which were only made worse by the poor communication between the pilots, flight attendants, and base managers. Of all the things to fire flight attendants at a US airline over, this one seemed rather absurd.

What do you make of this resolution between United and the flight attendants?

(Tip of the hat to Kevin)

  1. Its funny how anyone can be offloaded sometime even causing flights to taxi back to the gate just for pissing off a FA but a serious security concern like this and tge management doesnt seem to care instead blames and fires those who are genuinely scared. It may have been a “cute joke” but was seriously the blame shouldve gone towards the maintaince staff and thwy needed to be pulled up not the innocent FAs, Just my opinion.

  2. “serious concerns”? Only due to their ignorance and paranoia. I wouldn’t have thought twice about flying on it, and neither did the pilots.

  3. @Eric:


    Lucky doesn’t give a darn about the cancelled flight, he will just book the next available flight to anywhere with his bank of miles. Us that actually work for a living when we arrive in the city (not a slap that Lucky doesn’t work but his job isn’t dependent on arrival to a city), we would have been arriving in economy on a day or two later compromising the value of the trip.

  4. In other news, I wrote “wash me” in the dust on the back of my wife’s car, and added a disturbing image of a buxom woman in a tiny bikini holding a sponge and bucket, and my wife fired me.

  5. It’s not up to flight attendants to judge these matters. It’s not their job and they are not competent to do it. They were completely out of line and seriously inconvenienced hundreds of people by their action.

  6. @ Eric — Actually, if you read the original case, the pilots *did* have second thoughts about flying it, which is part of the reason the flight attendants were scared.

  7. Will they get back pay ? That wasn’t a strike so Union probably didn’t support them (in pay).

  8. No one asks or comments about who actually had access to the aircraft and high lift machinery to actually do the graffiti, causing the whole kerfuffle in the first place? Surely united knows exactly who this was based on Maintenence records, surveillance cameras etc.

  9. So there was a safety concern. It was checked out. Then there was a determination that the flight was okay to continue.

    There has to be some hierarchy for decision making. That’s how businesses work. Does the pilot have the final say? The are risking their lives just as much as the FAs.

    When the boss gives an order, you do it, or you’re fired, unless it is unethical. Isn’t this what happened?

  10. Anyone that thinks that the sole judgement of the pilot is all that matters in making flights safe has no clue about CRM. It was insane that United thought it was reasonable to fire these FAs in the first place and I’m glad they are being rehired. Either way, incidents like this diminish the safety culture at United, hopefully another thing that will improve under Munoz.

  11. As to the issue of back pay, that’s what is “confidential” about the rest of the settlement.

    A few things to think about:

    First, they filed a complaint with OSHA and were represented by counsel. That’s probably something that United didn’t expect but it raised the stakes from just a grievance and arbitration through the flight attendant’s union. At a minimum, it meant that United, if they lost, would have to pay attorney fees. There were also possible penalties from OSHA. The union grievance was also still filed.

    Second, the settlement was announced by their counsel.

    My conclusion. Of course they got back pay. It is even more of a certainty that United also paid attorney fees to their counsel. That’s how it works.

  12. Think about it… what terrorist has advertised their impending auto-explosion by putting a sign up on the very plane they were targeting? This was obviously someone’s idea of a joke, and actual security concerns were a clear overreaction. I’m “concerned” and “uncomfortable” about the amount of time that’s wasted and lives disrupted by security theatre. Why on earth was their first thought to a bomb instead of how school children write “clean me” on dirty cars? Sorry, I’m with the crowd thinking this was paranoia and UA was right to fire them.

  13. 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!

  14. NB says:
    March 9, 2016 at 9:37 am
    It’s not up to flight attendants to judge these matters. It’s not their job and they are not competent to do it. They were completely out of line and seriously inconvenienced hundreds of people by their action.

    Every employee has the right to address safety concerns. FA job IS to ensure safety on a flight and not simply to bring snacks to ignorant individuals such as yourself. “Competent”?, they are more competent than you are so sit at the bar, have another drink, complain about TSA and leave the flying to the professionals! I’d rather be inconvenienced out of safety than never arrive due to ignorance as you seriously stink of in abundance!

  15. I don’t think the request for additional screening and an aircraft sweep was out of line to begin with. The flight attendants didn’t refuse to fly until the company ignored their request for a simple solution that would have made them feel safer. I had a security concern on one of my flights once and my airline took it on and wouldn’t allow us to fly until we all felt safe. Many times the flight attendant is the last line of defense. I’m glad the United 13 are back in the air.

  16. Joseph does not know what he is talking about reguarding flight attendants duties. We are required to address all safety concerns. In-flight and on the ground. My flight attendant handbook states that is one of my responsibilities. If that were not case these flight attendants would not have gotten their jobs back. What’s your deal Joey what gave you the idea this was not part of my job?

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 *

Reminder: OMAAT comments are changing soon. Register here to save your space.