United Airlines Fired A Color Blind Pilot Who Could Not Fly. Now The Pilot Is Suing.

A United Airlines pilot, hired in April 2022, was terminated after less than two months at the carrier “because he struggle[s] to discern different colors while flying at night.” The pilot is suing.

  • He had just become eligible for long-term disability, and filed a claim.
  • The airline says that his condition meant he was ineligible to be hired in the first place.

The pilot was unable to fly less than a month after being hired. He “couldn’t determine the colors of signals on taxiways” and couldn’t fly at night. However he claims that there’s ‘no evidence’ he had this condition when he was hired, he could have developed it in the weeks that followed.

The good news is that no one disputes that he shouldn’t be flying. The question is, should United be on the hook for his disability claim?

I lived in California as a teenager and my family was in the car business there. A mechanic in their repair shop cheated on his wife, and contracted an STD. He denied the affair, though, claiming he’d gotten the clap being bitten by a spider that was under the hood of a car he was working on.

He was ‘all in’ on the story. His wife felt that if he was injured at work, he should file for workers comp. It didn’t matter that’s not how STDs work. They’re called sexually transmitted for a reason. He needed to sell it, and that meant filing a (false) claim with California. And he got it. The state government helped keep his marriage together. In that case my family’s workers comp coverage got dinged with a claim it shouldn’t have.

Another frequent issue in California was hiring workers who would get injured on the job right away. The record was one employee who cut his finger during the first 10 minutes on the job, changing an oil filter on his car. Usually it took at least a few hours for an intentional workplace injury. The goal was getting hired in order to file a claim.

I’m not saying that a pilot tried to get hired by a commercial airline in order to file a disability claim. There will be a fact-based inquiry into the plausibility that the pilot’s medical issue could have developed post-hire, and whether or not that matters, for instance if it was possible that the pilot did not know at time of hire whether he was medically ineligible for the position.

I share this story because airlines are a microcosm for society, and have to deal with issues far beyond just flying aircraft from one place to another. Sometimes the question of who bears responsibility for a cost is a matter of timing and (good or bad) luck.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Typically if you are colorblind… it is a congenital issue. If you have acquired color vision deficit, you have some sort of systemic disease, or are taking a toxic medication, or have some kind of injury. Acquired color vision defects are extremely rare. How could acquired color vision defects be the fault of the airline? Also, how did this pilot amass thousands of hours of flight time prior to being hired if the color vision defect was NOT acquired (and is congenital)? None of this makes any sense.

  2. All pilots must pass a physical every 6 months or every year. Even private pilots take one every two years. One thing they test for is color blindness. There is no way to fake that unless you pay off the doctor. That being said, color blindness is common with men, not so much with women, however, it should be treated as an ADA issue.
    (retired pilot)

  3. “Sum Ting Wong” here. In order to be hired, he had to have a 1st class medical, with no significant issues (other than corrective lenses, hearing aids, and the like), valid through his entire training program. At my company, this is caught during the INDOC period and then rechecked on day one of flight training. Color blindness is a show stopper since the tower can use a “red/green/white” signal light! The airport environment is covered with red/green/blue/amber/white lighting. I agree with “Mark”. This story doesn’t add up.

  4. If this man had no record of color blindness through multiple eye examinations in his professional life and then just now turned up color blind, United will be on the hook for disability most probably. One has to assume he had a ton of eye tests to actually become a United pilot.

  5. There are no financial consequences to United The government bails them out at the drop of a hat, just like the banks. Just add another zero to the national debt.

  6. @Alan – first of all in a workplace suit the burden of proof is on the employee. The company is typically considered innocent until proven otherwise. That means he would have to prove he “acquired” this (since he doesn’t seem to be disputing the fact he has a vision issue) in the short time he worked for UA AND that UA was at fault.

    Even if he proved he acquired it if UA isn’t deemed to be at fault (if you think they are there would have to be hundreds of pilots w a similar such condition) then the ADA likely wouldn’t apply. Even under the ADA you have to be able to perform your duties (with reasonable accommodations by the company) or moved to a similar job. I doubt he would want to trade a pilot’s salary for a gate agent or CSR.

    Frankly sounds like a BS claim and UA, for some reason, didn’t catch it during the hiring process. Another poster did ask an interesting question – how did he pass all the previous certification tests and get the flight hours necessary to apply to UA?

  7. A.A. worked for my mom. Al-Anon worked for me. The goal is not to get religion. It is to get and stay sober. You can bring as much or as little religion into it as you want. Or no religion at all. One person chose a door knob as their higher power. My mom and I choose to call our higher power God.

  8. as a 45 year old color blind man myself, I call total BS on this. You figure out you are color blind by 3rd grade, as soon as you color the ocean purple instead of blue for the first time…

    I did have an odd situation happen to me when I was entering the Marines years ago. When I was the MEPS processing station (just before your shipping off to boot camp). I was wearing contacts that day and after I was taking all of my visions tests, I was told to put my contacts back in. While I was doing that, the technician just filled out my color vision test as passed, even though I never actually took it. I knew I was color blind, so I was anxiously awaiting that test. Fast forward to when I was getting my school assignments after boot camp (MCT), I had a moment of panic when I realized the might send me to avionics school or something like that which would require normal color vision… I didn’t think the Marines would believe me if I told them the truth at that point. Thankfully I ended going to a school that color vision wasn’t as big of an issue.

  9. So he tried to beat the insurance company to the door. By the way, there are AME’s out there that will pass Ray Charles…..and everyone knows it.

  10. Some forms of color blindness can have genetic markers and can be tested but that is far from routine testing.

    As far as comments about pilots having many eye tests, that is probably true only for superficial tests and not the most detailed tests available.

    If probability is the standard, it’s more likely that the condition was there since birth.

  11. I note something here–he has trouble with the lights **at night**. Perhaps the light level has something to do with it–maybe he can pass by day.

  12. This story reeks BS. To get hired as a pilot, you need a license and a medical. Being hired at a major airlines, he probably was flying commercial somewhere else before.
    The medical should have stated he was colorblind and revoked all of his licences. Either he had been paying his Doc for several years to manipulate the data, or he was having an affair with his Doc.

  13. He must still be under probation and can be let go without cause or intervention by ALPA during this period. The optics on this one are bad. No pun intended.

  14. The only question that you are not asking and every party is conveniently sidestepping and the only one that matters : DID HE PASS HIS CLASS 1 FAA PHYSICAL? If so it sounds like attempted insurance fraud, fraud by his AME, or something else… something is missing. Whenever you get hired at an airline they want to see a current FAA medical certificate.

  15. Yea, he paid for all those flight hours so he could file a claim. Sure!
    Guess what extra test will be on pilot entry physicals?

  16. I’m not a pilot, but I do wear glasses and get a weird glare from some light sources. I wonder if anything has changed with the lighting?

    Has the frequency waves or intensity of the lighting changed at airports? For example changing over to a different type of bulb system? For me the ultra bright LED some cars have cause extreme glare on my glasses so I could see how its difficult to distinguish b/w green, red, amber, white lights if its “LED” color created opposed to “bulb casing” based.

    I would expect the FAA or whatever group that is over aviation to have tested for this type of scenario and specified what bulb lighting combinations are OK. So I would hope my question is completely null & void.

  17. I suppose he might be claiming to have a problem distinguishing between taxiway centerline lights, which are green, and taxiway edge lights, which are blue.

    But I call BS. There’s no way he could have gotten even a student level medical certificate without this being noticed, unless as others have pointed out he used a crooked or incompetent doctor.

  18. Ridiculous. I had an excellent flight instructor whose FAA public medical record very clearly says that he has color deficit vision. It was irrelevant for his teaching but he never would have been able to join an airline with it. Unless United never checked him he never could have slipped this through. And for that matter, why would he want to?

  19. > as a 45 year old color blind man myself, I call total BS on this. You figure out you are color blind by 3rd grade, as soon as you color the ocean purple instead of blue for the first time…

    Someone who is color **blind** would of course know it. However, my former employer gave color vision tests to all employees so the supervisors would know who not to try to put on the two color-sensitive jobs in the factory. 20% failed–nobody who truly couldn’t see color, but those of us whose color vision is flawed. Almost none of them knew it. Under easy conditions I have no problem, but when it either gets subtle or the bits of color are small enough I’ll stumble. One-pixel objects are the worst, I’ve hit more than one graph with a one-pixel red line and a one-pixel green line and I can’t tell them apart. I can read band-type electronics color codes if I have a cheat card I can hold up next to the object. I can’t read dot-type codes even with a cheat card.

  20. What were the results from his pre hire physical? All major airline pilots were required to pass a pre hire physical exam..in additional to the FAA medical.

  21. Up to 1990, American use to mail poop sticks to new hire pilots that were offered conditional employment. The pilots would have to put their feces on the sticks and mail them back to AA’s medical department. Every orifice of the body was examined.

  22. (Ex) Pilot here. Had a Spanish PPL and needed a medical for UK PPL with night and IMC ratings. I was in my 30’s and it was a huge surprise to find I have deficient color vision when seeing small red/green lights at night. I passed but had to see a specialist doc at London eye hospital. That said, it’s hard to believe someone who can’t see airport lights didn’t know. Never heard of acquired color deficiency, but I suppose it could happen. TL;DR I find this guy’s story suspicious at best.

  23. I had graduated from college with a degree in mechanical engineering. I got full security clearance to work at nuclear power plant. At age 22, I flunked the physical as I was colorblind and never knew it. My siblings are also colorblind. My wife helped me toss all my ugly clothes.

  24. My nephew wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a fighter pilot. Unfortunately he inherited my father’s color-blindness. So his application to the Air Force Academy was denied. But the silver lining is the Navy doesn’t have the same standard, so he’s an ace Navy pilot now!

  25. The color blindness test the FAA gives is very easy to pass and I did the same one every six months. I could pass it with my eyes closed. An airlines don’t do anywhere near the pre hire medical screening as they did years ago. Unless he can prove this condition just happened I don’t think he will be successful in his claim.

  26. Everyone knows the 5 weeks of sims he had right before becoming Ltd eligible all have color displays right? Lol. Wild it wasn’t a problem then. Miraculously between the time he got his type rating and Ltd eligibility the problem appeared.

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