EEOC Is Suing United Because They Won’t Let Alcoholic Pilot Fly Without Attending AA

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I don’t think getting over it and “sitting silently” through the program is a good solution. The participants are expected to participate and engage with the program, and if a core tenet of that program violates your religious beliefs, how are you expected to take that program seriously and take its lessons to heart?

    If you think firing pilots who have “had their license taken away by the FAA” pending treatment is a good idea, I don’t see how you can expect anyone with serious problems to self-report. The cumulative result, regardless of any individual pilot’s circumstance, is worse aviation safety.

  2. If you want a program actually capable of helping someone then requiring a one size fits all approach is exactly the wrong way to go. This pilot offered to attend an alternative program without the Christian overtones and was denied. I’d much rather have the pilot find a program that will help him rather than sit in silence for the sake of saving his job.

  3. Gary – how about this as an idea to help reduce the airline employee rolls…fire any employee not complying with local face covering ordinances in an airport while in uniform. It’s been amazing walking around airports and seeing the vast majority of those individuals disregarding local laws mandating face coverings are pilots (sitting in the terminal), ground staff, and other airline employees displaying badges.

  4. Pretty misleading title as usual. Makes it sound like the guy is refusing to get help which isn’t the truth at all.

  5. AA is not specific to one God. It is a God of one’s understanding. Anyone that is familiar with the Big Book would echo the same sentiment. It is made up of general guiding spiritual principles that one is to make personal for themselves whether that be Jesus, Buddha, a personal understanding of God free of religious connotations, or the sun, the moon, and the stars. The only definite suggestion outlined in the book is that this Power cannot be of human strength (any alcoholic that has tried to get well through a self help group, therapy, their family, ETC. can echo that sentiment). There is a difference between a heavy drinker (which human power, even AA meetings alone, may work) and an alcoholic. Truth be told this pilot may have heard some off the wall stuff at an AA meeting (as often times the meetings stray from the Big Books teaching), but the literature is very clear that when they speak of God, it is in general terms and not specific to any variation of God. This coming from a former atheist faced with alcoholic destruction who worked the steps of AA which guided me into a personal relationship with a God of my understanding and saved my life. I would be dead if it were not for the 12 steps guided approach to find a Power that makes sense to me.

  6. This is another example where religion should not butt its way into business affairs. UA should provide non-religious alternatives to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings such as private counseling and treatment. Or the pilot should seek an AA chapter (not the airline) that is not religious at all.

  7. And what if AA was Islam-based? How many of you xtians would still say, “hey just deal with it”, “just stay silent”, etc.?!!

    Forcing someone into AA is religious persecution.

  8. While most likely a stock photo (as you used it just yesterday as well in another post) I feel bad for the guy featured in the cockpit here being associated as an alcoholic pilot by people who don’t read or understand the use of stock photos in blogs.

  9. Why exactly are there any references to religion in AA? Surely there are ways to have recovery programs which do not include religious undertones. If I was an alcoholic and forced to go to AA any reference to “god” would drive me to drink again. Forcing any type of religious belief on people has absolutely no place in our culture. Religious freedom isn’t a one way street for Christians to claim that they should be treated differently (e.g., refusing to provide a wedding cake to a same-sex couple), but a principle that applies to all religions and even atheists.

  10. @Gary – I read a separate article yesterday that specified that the pilot found a Buddhist AA group near him that did not force him to deal with a religion that is foreign to him. If correct, your headline is seriously misleading because he WANTS to go to AA, he just doesn’t want to go to the branch where they impose their religion on him but prefers the Buddhist location. United refused.

  11. Apologies, I misphrased. I meant to say that if the article was correct, your headline is seriously misleading.

  12. Gary – I’m surprised you would title something like this. Really? The alcoholic that won’t attend AA.

    The reality is he’s Buddhist and believed the Judeo-Christian teaching in AA was inappropriate and asked to attend a similar yet more like minded (for him) group.

    I agree with him. Let’s not mince words. He wasn’t refusing to undergo counseling (I refuse to call AA treatment).

    Alcoholism is a disease. Would you post something with such a blunt title if he had some other disease?

    You’re better than this.


  13. Absolutely no.
    Forcing Christian principals on anyone is reprehensible and against the law in most incidents.
    United is going to lose this one big time.
    Your religion belongs in YOUR home and YOUR church. It doesn’t belong in our employment.
    Telling someone to suck it up is ugly. YOU suck it up and go to Islamic gatherings, how’s that?
    Do better and keep your religion out of our lives. If I were a Christian today, I’d be pretty ashamed. It’s been hijacked.

  14. A suitable non-religious treatment program being required by an employer couldn’t be substituted? Is that really too much to ask? I guess for some people it is. Kinda pathetic that you have an issue with this Gary. It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request at all. He is willing to do the treatment just doesn’t want to be forced to listen to religious preaching from a religion that he is not a part of and that is not consistent with his beliefs.

  15. “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.” – It seems this guy may have self reported. Do we really want a system where if a pilot is diagnosed with a substance abuse problem the knee jerk reaction is to end their career even if they are self reporting and going through with treatment? Seems like that would encourage people to hide their problems and would be much more likely to put the safety of the public at risk.No logic at all to suggest that people who seek help should be penalized for doing so if they are able to successfully be treated.

  16. Early in AA’s history, Bill Wilson, who wrote most of the “Big Book” sent a copy of it to a group of Thai Buddhist monks, asking their opinion. They wrote that Buddhism doesn’t have a God. The Buddha is an enlightened man, not a God. So, they wrote, where the Big Book says “God”, they would say “The Good.” Otherwise, they wrote, they liked the book. I have suggested this alternative to my Buddhist alcoholic friends, and they have found that this has allowed them to use the “Big Book” and the A.A. program, and benefit from it. They can turn their will and their lives over to the care of “The Good”, or a universal concept of what is good, and still stay sober.

  17. There are over 100 recognize self help groups. Mandating AA is just plain ignorant. Pick the one that works for you. Other airlines are flexible with treatment plans. Bottom line, you cannot argue with success.
    Three federal circuit courts have held that coerced participation in 12-step programs like AA and NA violates the First Amendment. In Kerr v. Ferry, 95 F.3d 472 (7th Cir. 1996), the Seventh Circuit held that requiring an inmate to attend NA meetings or risk suffering adverse effects for parole eligibility violated the Establishment Clause. The Second Circuit reached a similar conclusion in Warner v. Orange County Department of Probation, 115 F.3d 1068 (2d Cir. 1997), striking a probation condition requiring attendance at AA meetings. And most recently the Ninth Circuit determined that a parolee’s First Amendment rights were violated when his parole officer forced him to attend 12-step meetings as a condition of his parole. Inouye v. Kemna, 504 F.3d 705 (9th Cir. 2007).

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