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

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.)

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske