It Was Illegal For This American Airlines Pilot To Fly, But Refusing To Let Him Fly Was Illegal Too

Companies are frequently faced with a dilemma where they have to choose between acting ethically and acting legally. But it’s shocking to find a situation where a company is faced with a binary choice, and either option they choose is illegal.

That’s apparently the situation American Airlines found itself in when pilot Major General Thomas Harwood III ended his tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force Reserve and sought to return to active status with the airline.

  • The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act required American to promptly re-employ the pilot once his reserve tour ended.

  • However “he had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation during his tour of duty” and so American Airlines couldn’t legally have him fly.

Seven weeks after the pilot ended his tour of duty, American Airlines offered him “a newly created role while he pursued a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration that would let him fly.” He did not accept, and ultimately rejoined the airline in January 2016.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled this week in Harwood v. American Airlines Inc., case number 18-2033, that:

  • American owes him pay from the end of his Reserve tour to the date they offered him a new position in October.

  • And if that new position wasn’t “comparable” to his pilot role, American owes him pay through January when he actually return.

At a minimum, “Harwood was entitled to damages at least for the period from September 1 to October 22, when American Airlines made its offer to Harwood for an alternative position, which Harwood turned down,” Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote for the panel. “On the other hand, the period from October 22, when Harwood turned down American Airlines’ offer, until January 25, when he accepted the offer and was rehired, should be at Harwood’s expense, unless the position that American Airlines offered on October 22 was not an equivalent position.”

The pilot’s disability meant he wasn’t qualified to be a pilot, but he argues that since he wasn’t immediately re-employed by American as a pilot or in a comparable role to pilot the airline owes him money. It sure seems to me that the airline tried to do the right thing in offering him an alternative position to the one he was hired for, while seeking permission from the FAA for him to return to his normal role.

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. That’s government for you. They’ll create a situation in which it is literally impossible to follow the law and then penalize you for it.

  2. What a mess and a shame that the Major General didn’t have a more understanding attitude. AA was going to lose no matter what, the speed that the legal system moves would mean that there’s no way they employ him in time to be legal but to get a ruling on his eligibility to fly during that same time. Sheesh, I feel badly for AA (which I don’t usually) that they’re being forced into giving this retiree more money. Maybe I should join up and hold a guaranteed position after…(and yes, I know that’s an incredibly uniformed statement)

  3. The requirement for offering employment and the ability for the employee to perform are two separate issues. The crutch here is that AA waited 52 days before offering him a position, which violates the law. What AA should have done is either offer his original position as pilot, and negotiate medical leave per Union rules, or offer the pilot-equivalent position right up front, and not waited 52 days. AA HR dropped the ball here.

  4. Yeah…AA HR and Legal dropped the ball on this one. This situation happens in my industry, trucking, often.

  5. I admit that I’m puzzled why American would hire a general as a pilot. Presumably it would take 30+ years to reach the rank of a general officer so hiring someone who’s 50 or older to begin training as a commercial passenger pilot seems odd.

  6. @Christian. Regarding the pilot, I doubt he was a new hire but more likely pilot on seniority list returning from Military Leave and retired out as 0-7, Major General.
    Regarding AA, yep, they should follow the law and the union contract.
    Regarding the FAA, “We’re not happy until you’re not happy.” That’s based on my experience with the old Age 60 Rule.

  7. So AA tried to violate the law and stiff him by paying him less.

    Shameful treatment of servicemen. Thank goodness for laws/regulations and courts!

  8. If his physical condition affected his ability to safely pilot an aircraft he should have been shown the door. He certainly would not need the money as his pension must be humongous. I guess he is a privileged narcissist who wants what he wants no matter who will suffer the consequences. Just hope it is not the passengers.

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