About a year ago I wrote about an incident on a United flight that led to the termination of thirteen flight attendants (See Disagreement Over Security Grounds for Termination? A Case Study). The problem began when crew members found graffiti near an engine compartment that was potentially threatening. Passengers were held from boarding while ground crew checked the engine compartment. When nothing was found, the captain of the flight assumed it had been a bit of harmless ground crew graffiti and ordered the flight boarded. The flight attendants objected and demanded that the entire aircraft be searched to be sure it was safe or that a new aircraft be provided. The inflight supervisor ordered the flight attendants to begin boarding. The flight attendants refused and the flight was canceled. Following a disciplinary hearing, all thirteen flight attendants were fired based on United’s rule that disobeying a direct order is grounds for dismissal.
The flight attendants filed a federal whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Yesterday, the flight attendants and United issued a joint statement saying that they had reached a confidential resolution and that all thirteen flight attendants would be rehired. No other terms of the agreement were disclosed. United’s senior vice president for inflight services commented, “We respect the right of our employees to raise concerns in good faith about the safety and security of our operations and encourage them to do so.”
As I said at the time, this incident is an interesting case study in decision making. On the one hand you have a potential risk to safety while on the other you have corporate pressure to make sure that flight departs. “Safety first” is good in theory but difficult to apply in reality when you need to balance competing interests. In this case, everything hinged on the assessment of the credibility of the threat. The supervisory team felt it was not credible and the flight attendants felt it was.
However, I find myself a bit irritated by the comments of United’s vice president. If United truly encouraged the reporting of security concerns, it would seem to follow that they would not have ignored the potential threat and ordered the attendants back to work. And they certainly wouldn’t have fired the thirteen employees. Instead, one would have expected some attempt to mediate between the competing interests of employee concern and schedule demands.
Here’s the interesting thing: what difference would it have made? Conducting a safety check might have led to a lengthy delay and possible cancellation of the flight. But having the entire cabin crew walk off the job led to a cancellation of the flight anyway. In the end, the flight attendants’ actions in raising concerns have been validated and United has suffered a certain amount of embarrassment.
So if you were in the position of the United management team, how would you have resolved this situation? If you were a passenger scheduled on that flight, would you feel the same way?