AirTran Airways was ordered to reinstate a former pilot who was fired after reporting mechanical issues.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor ordered that AirTran reinstate the pilot and pay him more than $1 million, including back wages, interest and compensatory damages of about $40,000 for mental anguish, pain and suffering and job search expenses. The agency, in a decision released Tuesday, said the investigation "found reasonable cause to believe that the termination was an act of retaliation."
"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," OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels said in a written statement.
Orlando-based AirTran, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, was acquired by Dallas-based Southwest Airlines last year. Southwest declined to comment.
The pilot alleged in a complaint that he was removed from flying on Aug. 23, 2007, pending an investigative hearing into a "sudden spike" in his reports on mechanical malfunctions." OSHA did not release the pilot's name.
AirTran and its pilots union at the time were in the middle of contentious rounds of labor contract negotiations.
At the company's 17-minute internal investigative hearing on Sept. 6, 2007, "the pilot indicated that he just feels like he's more diligent" in reporting a safety problem compared with other pilots, said Anthony Rosa, a regional whistle-blower technical adviser at OSHA. AirTran wasn't satisfied with that answer, and fired the pilot a week later, Rosa said.
The company alleged that labor contract negotiations were a factor, "but that's not what we found," Rosa said. The plane in question was eventually put out of service for repair, he said.
The pilot, who flew Boeing 717s, had pay of $17,000 to $19,000 a month, according to OSHA. The company can appeal OSHA's decision, but the order for reinstatement still would stand.
AirTran twice offered to reinstate the pilot, but both the pilot and OSHA declined the offers because the company wanted the pilot to admit guilt and limit his reporting of safety issues, "and that's repugnant to" the intent of federal law, Rosa said.
Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act, recently likened people with pre-existing medical conditions to wrecked cars and appeared to suggest that the sick are at fault for their illnesses just as drivers are at fault for their accidents.