Airline Mechanic Wins Whistleblower Suit After Reporting Cracks in Plane

Dozens of federal and state laws offer protections to whistleblowers in a variety of industries. The False Claims Act, the Dodd-Frank Act and the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) are just a few of those laws that allow for whistleblowers to receive a significant portion of any money recovered by the Department of Justice through settlement or judgment.

The Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, commonly called AIR-21, is another whistleblower protection and safety statute that doesn’t receive much media attention but probably should. The law provides protections to airline employees who report safety issues.

Specifically, AIR-21 establishes a process for aviation industry workers to appeal if they are fired or discriminated against for reporting a safety violation. If their claims are successful, AIR-21 whistleblowers may receive compensation and be reinstated to their former positions. Compensation may include back pay and compensatory damages, and the airline found to be in violation may be ordered to cover the whistleblower’s attorney fees.

Recently, an AIR-21 whistleblower claim was settled by Southwest Airlines. According to the lawsuit, in July 2014 a mechanic performed a maintenance inspection on a Boeing 737-700 aircraft and found two cracks in the fuselage. The mechanic reported the cracks, and the aircraft was taken out of service to be repaired.

The mechanic’s supervisors later called a meeting to “discuss the issue of working outside the scope of his assigned work.” The mechanic was given a “Letter of Instruction” indicating that disciplinary action would be taken if the mechanic took action beyond the scope of his duties again.

In his AIR-21 claim, the mechanic said the “Letter of Instruction” was meant to intimidate him and other workers from reporting safety issues.

The judge hearing the case found in favor of the mechanic. Southwest Airlines agreed to cover the mechanic’s legal fees, which reportedly came to $35,000, and his employment record will be cleared of the disciplinary “Letter of Instruction.” More importantly, the mechanic fought to ensure that workers aren’t afraid to report issues that could threaten the safety of airline passengers.

For more on whistleblower protections, please visit our whistleblower and qui tam claim overview.