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Three US Airways Flight Attendants Are Paying the Price for Speaking Up When They Thought Their Plane Was at Risk

Paula Walker, Brian Shunick, and Sue Burris haven't exactly gotten a hero's welcome at US Airways.
Victor J. Palagano III

One cold March morning, flight attendant Sonia Hartwick saw ice on the wing of the plane she was serving on, Air Ontario Flight 1363. Icy wings, as Hartwick knew, can be disastrous — a major cause of airplane crashes.

They can also be easily remedied: One word from the captain, and the plane can be de-iced and ready to go, usually in less than 10 minutes.

But Hartwick didn't say a thing.

Years later, she'd have plenty of time to think about the reasons why. She felt that "pilots did not welcome operational information from crew members," as one academic study of the Air Ontario flight would later note. She also trusted the pilots. Surely, if the ice were a real problem, she reasoned, they would have noticed it.

So Sonia Hartwick kept her mouth shut. And Air Ontario Flight 1363 crashed just seconds after takeoff, killing 24 people. Hartwick, unbelievably, survived — survived to tell her story and survived to deal with the guilt of knowing that she could have spoken up.

Paula Walker knew all about Sonia Hartwick. The Carefree resident has been a flight attendant for 23 years, and Hartwick's story is legend in the business.

But, more importantly, Walker had served as a trainer to her fellow flight attendants at America West (now US Airways). The story of Sonia Hartwick's icy observation isn't just an industry ghost story: It's used in training to teach flight attendants to trust their instincts, to be the eyes and ears of the flight, and to speak up when something isn't right.

So on another frigidly cold morning 14 years after the Air Ontario crash, when Walker noticed ice on the wings of America West Flight 851 as it was preparing to leave Calgary for Phoenix, she spoke up — and when she had to, she spoke up again.

It would take three tries, and the efforts of all three flight attendants onboard, to get the pilots to agree grudgingly to de-ice. But the upshot is this: Flight 851 landed in Phoenix on time, without incident.

Paula Walker believes the safe landing was due, in part, to her willingness to speak up. So do the flight attendants serving with her that day, Sue Burris and Brian Shunick.

But Walker, Burris, and Shunick haven't been lauded for their actions. Just the opposite.

After the trio reported the incident to the Federal Aviation Administration, one of the flight's pilots fired back at them, hard. He sued all three flight attendants for defamation, demanding $2 million. He has continued to push the lawsuit in court for nearly three years — and, at this point, the claim is headed to trial. That could mean lawyer fees and court costs running into six figures.

The situation is unbelievably stressful for the three veteran flight attendants. But what makes it even worse is that the cost of a trial, much less any jury verdict, would come out of their pockets. At this point, their airline has decreed that they're on their own.

According to their union contract, US Airways is supposed to foot the legal bill for any flight attendant sued for something she did as part of her official duties. The only caveat? If the flight attendant has shown "willful misconduct," the airline is off the hook.

That clearly isn't the case here. Yes, the record shows that the trio did offer a white lie in a desperate attempt to stop the pilots from taking off without de-icing. But they never did anything that a normal person would consider beyond the pale: no screaming, banging on cockpit doors, or causing a disturbance.

Yet the airline is refusing to provide one dime for their legal defense.

"When I got involved in this case and they said the company wasn't covering their defense, I was very surprised," says Michael Pearson, the attorney representing the flight attendants. "They should be treated as heroes, not ostracized."

So never mind that the three flight attendants may well have saved Flight 851. Never mind that the company's decision could cause a chilling effect among other flight attendants who see something dangerous.

The whistleblowers of Flight 851 are on their own.


The trouble began that morning in 2003 as Paula Walker was closing the cockpit door, just before the plane was to push back from the gate. The Phoenix-based flight crew was on its first flight of the morning, leaving Calgary to return to Arizona, and the weather was frigid — just about 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

When Walker asked the first officer, Ed Gannon, whether he was going to do the usual wing de-icing before takeoff, he said no. They didn't need it that day.

Didn't need it? Walker could see the wings of the aircraft, and, as she would later write in a memo to the FAA, they definitely had some sort of icy frost on them. (Through his attorney, Henry Stein, Gannon did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.)

 

As experienced fliers know, any sort of contamination on a wing can be a big deal. Numerous airplane crashes have been attributed to snow or ice on the wings. And it's not as though it's a difficult thing to get the problem taken care of. Cities like Calgary build de-icing into the flight time.

So Walker appealed to the captain, who serves as the top guy on the flight. But he told her he was deferring to his first officer, Gannon.

By now, Walker was upset. She says she sought out the other two flight attendants, Sue Burris and Brian Shunick. Both, like her, had nearly 20 years' experience with America West. Since the three had been flying together nonstop for the past month, they had an easy camaraderie.

All three agree: They saw ice.

"I've been with this company 20-something years," Shunick says. "I see ice on the wings, I know what it is."

This is the point where I, as a frequent flier, start feeling really nervous. Of course, we're always in a rush for takeoff, and when the pilot gets on the intercom and talks about how we're going to be delayed because they're doing some safety check, I roll my eyes just like anyone else.

But contamination on the wing is serious, serious business. This is not just better-safe-than-sorry; this is, literally, life and death.

So, of course, the flight attendants were freaking out. The pilots had pushed back from the gate and were preparing to taxi to the runway. The flight attendants felt they had to do something to get the pilots' attention.

"We had to think of something fast," Walker says. The three recalled that, as they gazed out the windows looking at the ice on the wings, the passengers seated nearby wondered aloud what they were doing. Those inquiries, they thought, might have provided enough cover to persuade the pilots to change their minds. "So we decided," Walker says, "we'll say that the passengers are asking about it."

It fell to Burris to make the call. She phoned the cockpit and explained that she'd heard comments; the passengers were concerned about the ice on the wings.

It was a lie. But from the point of view of anyone who's ever been a passenger on a plane, I think it was a forgivable one.

After Burris made that call, First Officer Gannon came out of the cockpit and inspected the wings himself. As he came back toward the flight deck, as Walker would later write in a memo to the FAA, he grumbled, "Now we have to de-ice to cover our ass."

Cover our ass. Not prevent a major catastrophe, but cover our ass. Nice.

So de-ice they did, and the plane took off. But the incident was so alarming to Walker that, immediately upon landing at Sky Harbor, she made her way to the airline's on-site offices. She explained how Gannon had twice blown her off and it was only after their third attempt to raise the issue that he finally obliged.

Walker says the company was alarmed enough to get a FAA representative on speakerphone. The FAA rep asked Walker to make a written statement — and asked for statements from Burris and Shunick, too. All three were happy to comply.

But without thinking of the ramifications, they made a mistake. In their statements, they repeated their claim that the passengers had raised the issue of the icy wings.

Later, when the FAA was investigating the matter and summoned the three for sworn testimonies, they would volunteer the truth: They'd made up the passenger concern just because they didn't know how else to get the pilots' attention. The discrepancy in their accounts would later become a major issue.

But they weren't thinking about that in 2003, moments after their safe landing in Phoenix, as they prepared their statements. They were only thinking about what might have been. "I'd never in my then-18 years written up anybody for anything," Walker says.

Burris agrees; she'd never lodged a complaint either. "But this was a potential catastrophe. To fly with contamination . . . You just don't do that."

As it turns out, the flight attendants weren't the only people who thought the pilots' actions that day were troubling. Unbeknownst to them, the de-icing crew at the Calgary airport filled out an "irregularity report" of their own.

"At about 6:15 [a.m.], my de-icing partner . . . approached a member of the flight crew, asking if they were going to require a de-icer," wrote Arnie Getz, a Calgary-based worker. "They said no, that they were fine."

 

That seemed odd to him. "We were both surprised," Getz wrote, "because we could see the frost on the wings and the fuselage." Yet only after the plane had pushed back for departure, Getz noted, was it towed back into position for de-icing.

If Getz's testimony is correct, Paula Walker and her fellow flight attendants may well have saved Flight 851.


After the flight attendants filed their statements with the FAA, they didn't push the matter. Nobody called the newspapers. Nobody lobbied for the pilots to be punished.

"We figured we did our job, and now it was their job," Burris recalls.

They heard nothing for three years.

"We figured nothing had happened," Walker says.

But then they got a call from a lawyer at the FAA. The agency was pursuing the matter; it was going to call them all in for depositions.

The three attendants cooperated, but the matter ultimately ended in a fizzle. "We did not take any action against the pilot in the case you referenced," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor wrote me in an e-mail. "I cannot comment on the allegations, other than to say that we were unable to substantiate them. Please note that this does not necessarily mean that we doubted the word of the flight attendants.

"It simply means that we were unable to prove the allegations."

Gannon obviously saw things differently. According to the lawsuit he would file against Walker, Shunick, and Burris, he was forced to hire an attorney. Although the FAA dropped its claims in March 2006, it cost him $21,770 in legal fees, only part of which was reimbursed by the FAA.

Gannon acknowledged that he did, ultimately, observe a "small patch of ice on the right wing." And he did, eventually, decide it was "best to err on the side of caution by having the aircraft de-iced."

But in court filings, Gannon insists he never violated protocol and, contradicting Walker's testimony, claims he was never approached by the flight attendants before the call from Sue Burris.

Even though his legal bills from the FAA investigation were $21,000, Gannon sued the flight attendants for 100 times that — a staggering $2 million.

Gannon initially alleged defamation, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The judge tossed out the latter two claims but left the defamation claim. Now it could end up in trial.

The flight attendants' lawyer, Pearson, has appealed to higher courts, arguing that their statements must be protected from litigation — they spoke up as part of their official duties, in order to keep passengers safe. But the courts have refused to get involved at this point.

So the legal proceedings drag on. If they keep going, the flight attendants could be on the hook for a sum well into six figures.

All three have already refinanced their homes. They have no idea where to get more money in this economy, much less enough for a trial. They're desperate enough to set up a Web site, hoping for donations and support.

They feel they're out of options.

Their union has filed a grievance, arguing that US Airways simply must pick up the cost of the flight attendants' legal defense. But the company is taking the position that the flight attendants lied — never mind that their actions may well have saved the flight from disaster.

A company spokesman declined comment, noting that the airline isn't a party to the suit. But if anything had gone wrong that day, you can bet it would have been a party to it. You'd think it would want to reward the flight attendants who came forward . . . not protect the pilot who grudgingly agreed to cover his ass.

"At the end of the day, they're taught to take whatever measures are necessary to protect the passengers and themselves," attorney Pearson points out.

And that's exactly what these three brave flight attendants did. Thank God. That's something we should honor. And we should expect — no, demand — that any airline we entrust with our lives does the same.


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