Pilots sue RAC, Flight Ops over termination disputes

 - May 7, 2008, 4:31 AM

Six pilots–all previously employed by the former fractional operator Raytheon Travel Air of Wichita before its March 21 merger with Flight Options of Cleveland–have filed two separate lawsuits alleging wrongful discharge from their jobs.

In Eric Miller v. Raytheon Aircraft Co. (RAC), Raytheon Travel Air (RTA) and Flight Options LLC, filed in the district court of Galveston, Texas, on July 21, Miller claims “he was discharged for the sole reason that he refused to perform illegal acts while operating aircraft for RTA.” The lawsuit contends that Miller “was repeatedly requested to file false MIRs [mechanical irregularity reports] and/or to change reports to modify the descriptions of certain critical maintenance items so that the aircraft could be operated until a scheduled maintenance period, thereby allowing the aircraft to be repaired without cancellation of the flight. These requests either originated at or were condoned by the very highest levels of the company and would have resulted in severe criminal penalties to the plaintiff had the plaintiff performed any of these illegal acts and been prosecuted for doing so. When the defendants fully understood that the plaintiff would not fly broken aircraft, he was singled out for termination.”

Miller had been hired by RTA on Jan. 5, 1998. In February this year, the lawsuit states, he accepted a written offer of employment from Flight Options, which at the time was finalizing its merger with RTA, and was scheduled for Flight Options indoctrination sessions and Hawker refresher training. After he completed the refresher training, the lawsuit says, Flight Options terminated him on April 4 for “unsatisfactory performance.”

According to the lawsuit, “Flight Options claimed the dismissal was warranted because of allegations that the plaintiff had threatened and/or assaulted an undisclosed third party…[but Flight Options] refused to identify the source of the claims [to Miller] or otherwise substantiate the charges.” Furthermore, the “plaintiff was told that he was being fired for an alleged failure to accept and embrace the policies, culture and character of Flight Options.”

John Sullivan, Miller’s attorney, told AIN there is a very narrow exception in Texas’ “right to work” law, which gives an employer the right to dismiss an at-will employee for virtually any reason. That exception applies when an employee is discharged for refusing to do something commanded by his employer that is clearly illegal. In such cases, Sullivan explained, the burden of proof is shifted to the employer.

In addition to court costs, attorney fees and various damages, Miller is seeking payment for two weeks of paid vacation not received from RTA and compensation from Flights Options for two days worked (March 22 and 23) and time spent in refresher training.

Union-organizing Activities

The second lawsuit–Thomas Bowden, William Brunet, Thomas Jeter, William Tumlin and David Yeager v. Flight Options LLC–was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio on September 6. (In the original filing, Miller was also listed as a plaintiff, but according to Sullivan, his lawyer, Miller has asked to be removed from this lawsuit to avoid complications between the two.)

The plaintiffs allege they were wrongfully discharged by Flight Options because of their union-organizing activities at RTA before the merger and at Flight Options after the merger. Brunet, Jeter and Tumlin were terminated by Flight Options on March 27, Yeager on April 17 and Bowden on June 27. They are being represented by the law firm of Baptiste & Wilder, which does work for the Airline Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Last January, two months before the RTA/Flight Options merger, the RTA pilots voted down IBT’s application to represent them. IBT is now trying to obtain enough authorization cards from current Flight Options pilots to effect a representation election there. IBT is financing the litigation for this lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that “Flight Options management knew of the plaintiff’s involvement in the pilots’ organizing effort at RTA… and actively opposed the RTA pilots’ organizing effort.” It contends that “the acts and conduct by [the] defendant in terminating the plaintiffs constitute violations of Section 2, Fourth of the Railway Labor Act,” and that “the defendant’s action in discharging the plaintiffs violates the public policy of the State of Ohio and the United States and is unlawful notwithstanding the plaintiffs’ at-will status.”

The lawsuit requests that the pilots be reinstated in their jobs, that their employee records be cleared and that they be paid back wages, costs and compensatory damages. It also asks the court to “impose on defendant punitive damages for its willful and unlawful conduct in an amount to be determined at trial.”

After reviewing the lawsuits, Flight Options chairman and CEO Kenn Ricci told AIN, “We aren’t going to randomly terminate people because, in my eyes, we have to justify what we do to other employees. Obviously, those pilots believe they were wrongfully terminated and we don’t, but we have to justify what we do. If we act irrationally as a company, then other people won’t work for us. So we think we have a strong case. I think there were about 180 votes for the union at Travel Air. So, clearly, this wasn’t any attempt to go after the union.

“I was even kind of surprised to find out who some of these guys were. I do know who some of the union people were. For instance, the voice of the union during the vote was a guy who was on their weekly announcements [on the Teamster’s telephone hotline] and who was very vocal about his support of the union, and he’s still employed here. So, obviously, there are people who voted for the union who are still employed and, rationally, we’d be wrong to take the course of just randomly discharging people.

“I can tell you we have specific information, and made specific determinations, as to why we let them [the pilots who filed the lawsuits] go. We were aware of the delicate balance and the legal obligations we had when the company was under union scrutiny. We are a very large group of non-unionized employees. We’re a [potential] large revenue source for a union and they are going to be taking every opportunity they can to take advantage of that. In my opinion, I don’t think they have any chance of succeeding.”

Regarding Miller’s contentions that he was coerced to fly airplanes with inoperative items (which occurred before the merger and therefore while RTA was still his employer), Ricci said, “I don’t know that circumstance. I can only talk about what I tell our crews to do. I’ve told every pilot at Flight Options that they can stop any flight for any reason. They can stop it if their horoscopes are wrong, if they want. I’ve told all of them that they have intuition, they have seat-of-the-pants experience, and if their intuition or sixth sense tells them, ‘Don’t do it,’ then they shouldn’t be doing it.”

Ricci concluded, “We have examined every one of these instances and are very confident in the reasons why we terminated, and they’re very well documented. My position is that I don’t comment, either publicly or privately, on specific reasons why an employee was terminated because I don’t think it’s fair to that person.”
Ricci expects it will take two to three years to resolve these lawsuits. RAC told AIN, “We do not comment on pending litigation.”