Occupational Health & Safety

OSHA Orders AirTran to Rehire Whistleblower, Pay $1 Million

"Retaliating against a pilot for reporting mechanical malfunctions is not consistent with a company that values the safety of its workers and customers," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.

OSHA has ordered AirTran Airways, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co., to reinstate a former pilot who was fired after reporting numerous mechanical concerns. The agency also has ordered that the pilot be paid more than $1 million in back wages plus interest and compensatory damages. An investigation by OSHA's Whistleblower Protection Program found reasonable cause to believe that the termination was an act of retaliation in violation of the whistleblower provision of the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, known as AIR21.

"Airline workers must be free to raise safety and security concerns, and companies that diminish those rights through intimidation or retaliation must be held accountable," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. "Airline safety is of vital importance, not only to the workers, but to the millions of Americans who use our airways."

The pilot's complaint alleged that the airline removed him from flight status on Aug. 23, 2007, pending an investigative hearing regarding a sudden spike in the pilot's mechanical malfunction reports, or PIREPS. The airline held an internal investigative hearing on Sept. 6, 2007, that lasted 17 minutes. Seven days later, the airline terminated the pilot's employment, claiming that he did not satisfactorily answer a question regarding the spike in reports. OSHA found that the pilot did not refuse to answer any questions during the hearing, answers to questions were appropriate, and the action taken by the airline was retaliatory.

"Retaliating against a pilot for reporting mechanical malfunctions is not consistent with a company that values the safety of its workers and customers," added Michaels. "Whistleblower laws are designed to protect workers' rights to speak out when they have safety concerns, and the Labor Department will vigilantly protect and defend those fundamental rights."

Either party to the case can file an appeal with the Labor Department's Office of Administrative Law Judges, but such an appeal does not stay the preliminary reinstatement order.

AirTran Airways is a subsidiary of AirTran Holdings Inc. with headquarters in Orlando. On May 2, 2011, Southwest Airlines completed the acquisition of AirTran Holdings Inc. and now operates AirTran Airways as a wholly-owned subsidiary.

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