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Sun, Mar 22, 2009

Three FAs Win Defamation Suit Brought By FO After Icing Incident

But Now They're Stuck With Legal Bills As Airline Refuses To Help

Three former America West (now US Airways) flight attendants have prevailed against a defamation suit brought against them by First Officer Ed Gannon, sparked by the FAs report of the FOs failure to follow proper deicing procedures.

In 2006, FO Gannon filed a $2 million suit against Paula Walker, Sue Burris and Brian Shunick. His complaint stated the flight attendants' "making of false allegations jeopardizing Gannon's ability to work in his profession is, on its face, (1) intentional and reckless, (2) is extreme and outrageous, (3) was the direct cause of his having to undergo over three years of investigation and prosecution, and (4) his emotional distress could only be severe."

The Phoenix New Times reports that last month, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Louis Araneta dismissed the co-pilot's lawsuit entirely, saying there was no evidence that the FAs had knowingly made false statements, nor that they'd made statements with "reckless disregard for the truth."

The NT also reports that despite Gannon's claim of severe emotional distress caused by the incident, he has subsequently failed to report any such condition on FAA medical questionnaires, raising a point with potentially serious consequences: Either Gannon lied in his legal claim, making his suit little more than frivolous harassment - or lied on his medical form, violating FAA regulations.

Although FAs Walker, Burris and Shunick were vindicated by the verdict, the airline has refused to back them financially. According to their union contract, legal expenses for lawsuits against FAs for actions taken while on official duty are to be provided for by the airline, but so far US Airways has refused to pay a penny for the FAs' defense -- estimated to total over $80,000.

The loophole? If determined to be guilty of "willful misconduct," the employee is on their own. This raises the moral question of defining "misconduct" -- is it wrong to make up a story to save lives that one believes are in imminent danger?

Lisa LeCarre, president of the Phoenix chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the union is pursuing an internal grievance process in hopes of getting the airline to pay up. "We do believe the company should have assisted these flight attendants legally, every step of the way," she said. "We don't want any litigation putting a chill on the communication between the cabin crew and the flight deck."

As ANN reported, Paula Walker, Sue Burris and Brian Shunick were the FAs working aboard America West Flight 851 on a cold wintry morning in 2003. Walker had mentioned de-icing the frost-covered airplane to FO Ed Gannon, who dismissed the FA's concerns. Walker's further appeal to the captain was also fruitless.

"We had to think of something fast," Walker said. All three FAs were experienced, averaging 20 years of service apiece. "I've been with this company 20-something years," Shunick said. "I see ice on the wings, I know what it is."

The FAs weren't the only ones who noticed the icy plane and sensed something out of the ordinary. De-icer crewman Arnie Getz said, "At about 6:15 [am], my de-icing partner... approached a member of the flight crew, asking if they were going to require a de-icer. They said no, that they were fine. We were both surprised, because we could see the frost on the wings and the fuselage."

Alarmed that the pilots had pushed back and chosen to depart without de-icing the frosty airplane, the trio stretched the truth -- calling the cockpit with a fabricated story, stating that passengers had become concerned about ice on the wings.

Walker said the FO then took another look at the frost-covered wings and begrudgingly relented, grumbling, "Now we have to de-ice to cover our ass." America West Flight 851 departed Calgary de-iced, and arrived in Phoenix safely and on time. Walker and her fellow flight attendants may well have saved Flight 851 from tragedy.

The incident was so disturbing to the FAs that, immediately upon landing at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, the three filed a complaint at the airline's on-site offices. "I'd never in my then-18 years written up anybody for anything," Walker said. Burris said she'd never before filed a complaint, either. "But this was a potential catastrophe. To fly with contamination... you just don't do that."

FMI: www.usairways, www.helpflightattendantcrew.blogspot.com

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