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.