The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit Monday against United Airlines arguing that they violated a pilot’s religious liberty by insisting he attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, arguing he should be permitted to substitute a Buddhist alternative.
Captain David Disbrow lists himself as starting with United Airlines in February 1985, months before the airline’s pilots went on strike. In 2018 he entered an alcohol treatment facility and lost his pilot’s license.
There’s a process to regain his license. This includes completing a substance abuse treatment program geared towards pilots. At United Airlines that includes attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and completing “at least the first five steps of AA’s 12-step programme.”
Those steps include “two specific references to a Christian God and acknowledgement that a “greater Power exists.” Disbrow, a Buddhist, objects. And with the backing of the EEOC he’s suing United.
It’s important for pilots to have a ‘way back’ from alcohol treatment, or else there’s a strong incentive to hide alcohol dependency which isn’t what you want in the cockpit. As it is there’s tremendous shame and professional consequences. It’s a tough position, because you don’t want pilots flying without regard to alcohol rules and the question is the best way to get there.
Ultimately it seems to me that union seniority issues aside,
- United Airlines has too many pilots for a medium-term future that involves less passenger demand and fewer flights, and
- they should be able to say that they prefer to keep pilots on staff who haven’t had their license taken away by the FAA.
United has a program that will work for most of its pilots. Those of us in a religious minority often find ourselves… in a religious minority. If returning to the cockpit were important enough, weighing competing values, he might consider sitting silently while references to Christian are offered.