Recently, a former airline employee won a $1.4 million judgment against Air Wisconsin Airlines for reporting him as a potential security risk. The Colorado Supreme Court denied Air Wisconsin immunity from the defamation lawsuit, which is now headed to the US Supreme Court. This will be a landmark decision as it may make people afraid to report suspicious activities (see link).
This is reminiscent of Northwest Airlines Flight 327, from Detroit to Los Angeles in 2004 when the suspicious behavior of 13 Syrian musicians alarmed flight attendants and passengers, that they may be observing a terrorist attack or a possible dry run for a terrorist attack. While TSA initially denied that the flight was a dry run, an OIG report later disagreed with their assessment. More relevant, there were rumors at the time that the passengers could be involved in a lawsuit for reporting the men, but I’ve never been able to verify that rumor.
The airlines have rather broad-based authority on what they consider security risks. Clearly it is an authority that can be abused by airline personnel that just get tired of putting up with somebody’s crap. But it is critical that flightcrew, flight attendants, passengers and anybody else, be able to report suspicious activity to law enforcement personnel without the fear of legal reprisal.
The Colorado Supreme Court found that the airline “overstated” its concerns with respect to their former employee, whose alleged actions made airline personnel nervous, so they called TSA on him. The U.S. Supreme Court said it would consider the scope of airlines’ legal immunity for alerting U.S. authorities to potential security threats. However, there is an exception to the law which provides that airlines are not protected from lawsuits for reporting false or misleading information.
In the past two days, there have been three separate incidents involving passengers who were possibly experiencing mental challenges or posing other risks to the safety of their flights. It is critical for the safety and security of our aviation system that airline personnel and passengers are allowed to take reasonable actions to ensure the safety of all those on board.
Reporting suspicious activity goes all the way back to the neighborhood watch programs. In fact, Aviation Watch program promoted by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association at general aviation airports and the See Something Say Something program promoted by TSA at commercial service airports, are based on the fundamental concept that if you see something out of the ordinary, or people acting in a suspicious manner, you should call the authorities.
A few various times I have notified my local police department when I have spotted suspicious vehicles or individuals in my neighborhood. On two occasions it turned out to be nothing. However, on another occasion it turned out to be four individuals who were wanted for auto theft and we’re looking for cars to steal.
It is critical that this effective and fundamental security tool be protected.