Inside the Courts

Did American Airlines handle erratic flight attendant correctly?

An American Airlines employee is in treatment and facing criminal charges for disruptive behavior on a flight.
An American Airlines employee is in treatment and facing criminal charges for disruptive behavior on a flight. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

American Airlines flight attendant Joanne Snow continues to receive treatment following her emotional breakdown during a Thanksgiving overseas flight from Charlotte.

Snow, 67, and an American employee for more than 45 years, is accused of disrupting both legs of a Charlotte-to-Frankfurt trip – including claims that she slapped co-workers, punched air marshals, even attempted to open the door of her jetliner as it taxied for takeoff in Germany.

She faces two federal charges – both have been put on hold pending treatment near her New Hampshire home.

Almost two months after Snow became a cautionary tale, many of the questions surrounding her case remain. Among them: the decision by an airline manager in Charlotte to leave Snow on the flight – even after her co-workers raised alarm.

American spokeswoman Katie Codie said Friday the airline could not comment on an ongoing legal matter. Last year, she said the company was reviewing its handling of the incident.

According to Cyndy Atkins, a veteran American flight attendant from Charlotte, the company subjected one of its most senior employees to national humiliation and jail time by ignoring clear warnings.

“The bottom line is management had the authority to remove her from that flight and didn’t use it,” says Atkins, who left on a Charlotte-to-London flight two hours before Snow took off for Frankfurt. “She is not a criminal. If she had been removed and given the psychiatric treatment she needed, none of this would have happened.”

In a letter last month to American CEO Doug Parker focusing on the Snow case, Atkins said airline managers need better behavioral training and the company needs more effective medical intervention.

In response, Hector Adler, a company vice president, wrote that the airline has programs in place to provide psychological help to “all our employees if they want it.”

The legal and financial consequences of such situations can be significant.

In 2012, a JetBlue pilot ran through the aisles, ranting about religion and terrorism. He was locked out of the cockpit, subdued, and the plane made an emergency landing. The passengers sued. So did the pilot. He asked for $15 million, claiming the airline should have spotted his mental issues during a pre-flight meeting and stopped him from becoming “a national public embarrassment.”

JetBlue settled with its passengers and, according to recent court documents, has reached an agreement with the pilot, too.

Charlotte attorney John Wester, a specialist in employment law, says airlines and other public-service companies have dual legal obligations to protect the well-being of their customers and employees.

“That’s a particularly challenging responsibility when it appears a psychological breakdown is taking place.”

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