Wrongful Termination: Can A Pilot Be Fired For Refusing To Fly An Unsafe Airplane?

Wrongful Termination: Can A Pilot Be Fired For Refusing To Fly An Unsafe Airplane?

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Jackson Barnett

Principal Attorney

If you were fired for refusing to fly an unsafe airplane, might there be grounds for a wrongful termination case? As a pilot at a Part 121 and Part 135 air carrier, you are a professional pilot trained to identify the warning signs of an aircraft you believe is unsafe and respond based on the severity of those signs. After all, the pilot and co-pilot are responsible for the safety of the passengers and crew aboard the aircraft. 

Operational efficiencies of a corporation may provide an atmosphere where the pilot’s decision conflicts with the air carrier. However, as pilots, we are taught from the very beginning during our days in single-engine aircraft that the final decision to go wheels-up is ours.

If that final decision is to not go wheels-up out of safety concerns and a pilot is terminated from the airline, what options might they have from a legal standpoint?

Legal Protections Pilots Have Against Retaliatory Action

If a pilot is fired for making reports to the FAA, they may have grounds to sue their employer for wrongful termination. Wrongful termination occurs when an employee is fired for an unlawful reason, such as reporting violations of federal aviation regulations.

To succeed in a wrongful termination lawsuit, the pilot must show that they were fired because they made a report to the FAA and not for any other legitimate reason.

Suppose the pilot can establish that they were wrongfully terminated. In that case, they may be entitled to damages, including lost wages and benefits, as well as any other costs associated with the termination. In some cases, the court may also order the employer to reinstate the pilot to their former position.

Captain Jason Kinzer was about to take off from St. Petersburg, Florida when his flight attendants alerted him to smoke and fire from the plane’s number one engine. To Kinzer, evacuating 141 passengers from the aircraft was a straightforward decision to make in the name of safety, especially since several passengers were already inhaling smoke or chemical fumes.

His airline felt the evacuation was completely unwarranted… Kinzer was promptly fired.

Outcomes like Captain Kinzer’s are, unfortunately, not isolated incidents. Pilots who have followed FAA regulations and company policy know that when it comes to taking off or not, the final say in the operation of an aircraft lies with the pilot. Yet, it’s clear that this responsibility doesn’t entirely protect them from wrongful termination. Captain Kizer’s matter concluded with a settlement that avoided a trial and the terms of the settlement were not to be disclosed.

We’ve seen other instances of pilots refusing to fly an airplane they felt to be unsafe due to factors such as:

In such cases, the pilot may object to flying out of concern for faulty equipment. When the pilot still refuses despite the employer’s demands, he could be fired for insubordination.

The Code of Federal Regulations protects the refusal to fly an unsafe airplane. 14 CFR 91.3 states that the pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for and is the final authority as to the operation of that aircraft.

Have you experienced retaliatory action from your airline for refusal to fly an unsafe aircraft, resulting in what you believe to be wrongful termination? Your next step may be to file a complaint with the FAA, which may enforce an action against the airline.

It’s also a pivotal moment to Bring Aboard Barnett. One of our aviation attorneys at Barnett Law Offices can meet with you to fully understand the circumstances of your wrongful termination and advise your next steps, which may include filing a lawsuit to challenge the airline’s actions and potentially obtain compensation for your damages. Call us for your consultation today at 1-800-578-5512.