United Airlines is no stranger to bad press. Remember the professional musicians who helplessly watched their expensive guitars destroyed by United ground personnel? That little incident launched years of bad publicity after the band recorded a song entitled United Destroys Guitars. The guitar incident was in 2008. Things have only become worse since then.
Less than a month ago, United Airlines refused to let two young ladies on board a plane because they were wearing leggings. Apparently leggings violated United’s dress code. Rather than learn from the incident and apologize, the airline dug in. In a prepared statement the company declared it “shall have the right to refuse passengers who are not properly clothed.”
Yes, but leggings? What exactly is their dress code?
We understand clothing that is too revealing or that contains gang symbols or offensive language. But leggings? Actress Patricia Arquette defended the girls on Twitter and claimed, “leggings are business wear for 10 year olds.” Actor William. Shatner donned a pair of Spandex pants (also a no-no according to United) in yet another parody of the company’s ridiculous decision making.
United probably would have survived that firestorm but like so many big companies today, it simply continued its downhill slide. Customer service is merely a slogan today with nothing to back it up. Ticket and gate agents are not empowered to fix problems and make things right for customers.
This week’s viral videos of a bloody physician being dragged from the plane may be the death knell for United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. (Despite a petition that already has over 100,000 signatures, Munoz says he is not leaving. He just may be able to survive unless Congress’ Commerce Committee calls for an investigation. If that happens, Munoz will likely join former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf on the unemployment line shareholders don’t like their CEO’s being dragged in front of Congress.)
There are plenty of videos of the incident and now other passengers with tales of being illegally removed from United aircraft are starting to surface. We won’t link them here because they are so easy to find. (You can visit our unique content on why removing Dr. Dau from the flight was illegal.)
United Airlines Defrauds the Government, Falsifies Inspection Records
Beating up passengers and illegally removing them from their seats will likely play out in Congressional hearings. Worse for the airline, many passengers will simply choose another carrier when offered a choice.
The much more sinister story involves defrauding the federal government, using unsafe aircraft parts and fudging inspection records.
We first wrote about this story last November. At that time a federal judge dismissed a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former United aircraft technician, David Grant.
In 2015, Grant sued United Airlines on behalf of the United States. He accused the airline of performing shoddy maintenance work on government aircraft.
In addition to maintaining its own fleet of planes, United Airlines has a contract to inspect, service and maintain military C-17 cargo planes. Grant accused the company of a wide variety of misconduct involving how it maintained military aircraft but his lawsuit was dismissed on technical grounds in November of 2016.
Grant’s lawsuit was filed in North Carolina. Unfortunately, that is one of several states where whistleblowers must have actual examples of misconduct. Although Grant worked at United Airlines for 28 years and witnessed fraud on a daily basis, he couldn’t point to a specific incident or mishandled engine part.
We often see great cases go up in smoke on technical grounds. Once an employee leaves (or is fired), it becomes extremely difficult to get the proofs needed to prove one’s case. You may be 100% correct that widespread fraud is taking place but proving that fraud is difficult when you are standing on the outside and no longer have access to documents and materials needed to prosecute a case..
Court Allows Grant to Refile His Complaint
On November 18th, U.S. District Court Judge David Norton dismissed Grant’s whistleblower lawsuit but permitted him to refile. One month later on December 19th Grant did just that.
United Airlines has again filed a motion with the court seeking to have the complaint dismissed. Ironically, that motion was heard last week just days before passenger David Dau was dragged off a United flight, bruised and bloody.
Grant’s New Complaint against United Airlines
According to Grant, United has a contract to inspect, repair and overhaul the jet engines on over 200 military cargo planes. United is the only company in the world that overhauls the inlets and core thrust reversers for the Air Force’s C-17 fleet. Those services are mostly performed at the Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. A few planes are also repaired at a United service facility in San Francisco.
Jet engine parts have extremely critical tolerances. Because they operate at incredible high rpm’s and under tremendous heat and pressure, some parts must have tolerances measured in millionths of an inch. It is extremely detailed work and nothing like working on a lawn mower.
A single bad part can cause a catastrophic engine failure. Sometimes that means death for the flight crew.
Grant says the Air Force contracts call for very detailed tolerances, specs, testing and inspection. Unfortunately, he says United often performs substandard work and then covers up their misdeeds.
United Engages in Pencil Whipping
Pencil whipping is an aviation term that refers to falsifying repairs and inspections. Grant says that in one incident a broken jet engine part was thrown away because it was cracked and unserviceable. Despite the dangers of using a cracked part, Grant says that workers were sometimes asked to dumpster dive and retrieve that part and often others bad parts. They would be cleaned up and reinstalled.
United gets paid for a new part. Taxpayers pay for the new part. An unsuspecting Air Force gets its old broken parts back. And our brave servicemen and women are put at risk of a terrible aviation accident.
In one incident, Grant says a supervisor claimed that rejected and discarded parts were “gold”, not garbage.
United Violates Inspection Regulations
Grant also claims that frequently the technician who performed the repair was the same person later conducting the inspection and certifying the repairs. If true, that practice violates federal aviation regulations.
The government’s so-called “second set of eyes” rule says that on military aircraft repairs, “[n]o person may use any person to perform required inspections unless the person performing the inspection is appropriately certificated, properly trained, qualified, and authorized to do so” and “[n]o person may perform a required inspection if he performed the item of work required to be inspected.”
United Airlines – A History of Cutting Corners?
David Grant was employed by United Airlines for 28 years. He claims he was fired for speaking up about United’s misconduct. We believe Grant; he spent decades working on jet engines and holds FAA airframe and power plan certifications.
We also believe Grant because other United employees have stepped forward and made similar complaints of sloppy aircraft maintenance.
In February 2003, former United Airlines mechanic Douglas Nivin filed a whistleblower complaint claiming that United failed to:
“1) insure its mechanics always had available required torque wrenches and calibrated/operable torque testers; 2) insure that its mechanics always used required torque wrenches on non-critical clamps, bolts an fittings when installing components onto the engines; 3) remove fuel/oil coolers, part number PWA 1B- 706, that could have been identified as leaking and perform follow-up idel leak tests on the engines; 4) perform follow-up functional or idle leak tests on thirty engines after engine components were replaced from about April 1, 1998 through July 30, 2002; and 5) properly use torque wrenches, analyzers, and boroscopes and comply with work instructions.”
That complaint seems hyper-technical but in an industry where the slightest imperfection can cause a crash, the government took Nivin’s allegations seriously. In April 2003, United Airlines paid the United States $3.2 million to settle the charges. It did so without admitting wrongdoing.
Another mechanic, Larry James, also filed an action against United in 2003. He claimed that a company supervisor forced him to falsify a damage report. James said,
“[P]laintiff alleges that in 2000, a mechanic working under his supervision “discovered a crack in the ceramic surrounding a fuel injector in one of the engines, and reported the damage to [plaintiff],” who “oversaw the employee’s completion of the form noting the damage, and concurred in the mechanic’s decision to report the damage.” However, shortly after the report was submitted, a foreman for [United] confronted the mechanic and plaintiff and “demanded that [the mechanic] withdraw his report, line through it, and write ‘entered in error’ on the form so that the damaged engine could be presented to the Air Force as ready for service without repair to the damaged fuel injector.”
Court Hears Motion to Dismiss on April 5th
Judge Norton heard United’s new motion to dismiss on April 5th. We are cautiously optimistic that Grant has cobbled together enough examples to pass judicial muster.
There is much at stake here. The contracts are worth billions of dollars. No price can be put on the lives of our military men and women who selflessly protect our freedom, however.
It could take several weeks before the court renders a decision. United’s recent bad behavior won’t help their case, however.
Call for Aviation Whistleblowers
The federal False Claims Act allows whistleblowers with inside information about fraud to claim an award. To get an award, your information must relate to fraud involving government funds or programs. How United treats its passengers and workers won’t get you and award. If United is defrauding the Air Force, however, the awards could be huge.
Claiming a whistleblower award means obtaining a lawyer and filing a sealed lawsuit in federal court. Generally only the first person to file is eligible for an award. One exception to that rule, however, is if the competing whistleblowers have different information.
The awards range between 15% and30% of whatever the government collects.
Mahany Law – America’s Aviation Whistleblower Lawyers
(see also our newest United Airlines story and aviation whistleblower content here.)