Flight Attendant Sues Southwest Airlines, Alleging Pilots Kept Camera in Lavatory

Brian, CC BY-SA 2.0
On a flight from Pittsburgh to Phoenix, Southwest Airlines flight attendant Renee Steinaker said she saw something in the cockpit that deeply disturbed her: An iPad that appeared to be showing video taken in the plane's front lavatory.

According to a federal lawsuit filed in August, Steinaker was working aboard Flight 1088 on February 27, 2017, when, per protocol, Captain Terry Graham called her to the cockpit so he could use the lavatory.

When Steinaker entered the cockpit, she alleges, she saw an iPad "mounted to the windshield left of the captain's seat." She further alleges that the iPad screen was broadcasting video that appeared to be taken in the plane's front lavatory. Graham was visible in the alleged video.

Steinaker said she asked co-pilot Ryan Russell whether the iPad was live-streaming video from the lavatory. Russell allegedly confirmed that it was, but asked Steinaker not to tell anyone. He also allegedly told Steinaker that cameras in the lavatory were "new" and installed on every 737-800 operated by Southwest Airlines.

Steinaker pulled out her cellphone and took a photo of the iPad, the lawsuit states. She later showed the cellphone photo to three fellow flight attendants working on the plane.

Graham and Russell allegedly bolted from the plane as soon as it landed, violating protocol, before taking a brief layover in Phoenix and flying out to Nashville.

"Plaintiff Renee Steinaker and other crew members reported the incident, providing the photograph of the iPad to Southwest Airlines personnel," the lawsuit states. "Reports were made and written and Southwest Airlines represented to Plaintiff Renee Steinaker and the others that it would investigate the incident."

Steinaker "became physically ill" at the thought of Graham and Russell watching her disrobe in the lavatory and was unable to work for several days, according to her lawsuit. She alleges that she asked Southwest Airlines to retain a copy of the plane's cockpit voice recorder.

The lawsuit also states that Graham and Russell continue to fly planes for Southwest Airlines.

Reached on the phone, Graham denied that there was a camera in the lavatory that day. He confirmed that he still works for Southwest Airlines, but hung up before Phoenix New Times could ask him further questions. Russell did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment.

Southwest Airlines did not respond to a detailed list of questions. The company instead released a statement via email saying: "The safety and security of our employees and customers is Southwest’s uncompromising priority. As such, there are absolutely no cameras in the lavatories of our aircraft. At this time, we have no other comment on this pending litigation."

Ronald Goldman, an aviation attorney representing Steinaker, told New Times that he has never encountered a case of pilots allegedly keeping a camera in a commercial airline lavatory.

"There is a reason why there is a requirement for two people in the cockpit at all times. That reason has to do with safety. Not for joking. Not for harassment," Goldman said. "I think you would rather have pilots who take their jobs seriously sitting up there rather than frat boys engaging in Peeping Tom behavior."

Steinaker could not be reached for comment.

According to Goldman, representatives from Southwest Airlines claimed Russell and Graham were playing a practical joke on Steinaker. Goldman said, even in that scenario, Steinaker would have grounds to sue.

"Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, and I’m not adopting by any means the accuracy of the claim, that they thought this would be a funny joke to spring on the flight attendants," Goldman said. "This is a classic example of sexual harassment in my opinion. This is a classic example of a hostile work environment where your superior is suggesting to you with physical evidence the possibility he is observing you while you were using the bathroom, while you were disrobing."

Renee Steinaker and her husband, David Steinaker are suing Graham, Russell, and Southwest Airlines for invasion of privacy, intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, sexual harassment, and retaliation.

The fourth claim, retaliation, stems from allegations that Southwest Airlines began "monitoring efforts to silence and intimidate" the four flight attendants on Flight 1088, as well as David Steinaker, who also works as a flight attendant for the airline.

Both Steinakers say that following the incident, they were subjected to an abnormal increase in "performance audits" in which a manager monitors an employee for the duration of a flight. According to the lawsuit, the audits were labeled as "team-building" exercises to circumvent a collective-bargaining agreement requirement to document audits in employee personnel files.

In addition to the audits, the lawsuit claims, "The flight attendants on Flight 1088, were repeatedly instructed not to disclose the incident to anyone including family, coworkers, the labor union, internal personnel and/or law enforcement."

Prior to filing her federal lawsuit, Steinaker took her case up with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December 2018. According to records, the EEOC determined she had a right to sue for discrimination in August 2019.