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Eject Him! Attorneys Say JetBlue Shouldn’t Let Employee’s Tirade Slide

By now, most people have probably heard about Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who became America’s newest so-called “folk hero” after he told off a difficult passenger, grabbed a beer, and exited a plane via the inflatable emergency chute. We decided to ask several employment law attorneys — all members of the Employers Counsel Network — about the incident, and one even wrote back to us about Slater’s slide while he was, ironically enough, on a plane.

We asked the attorneys how JetBlue should deal with this employee and whether he should be fired (or ejected), assuming his trip down the slide wasn’t his form of resignation. All agreed that he should be fired, but each had his or her own take on the incident and what employers could learn from it.

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Peter Panken, a New York City employment law attorney with EpsteinBeckerGreen, discussed the responsibilities that came with Slater’s job: “A flight attendant is an ambassador of the airline. His or her job is to interact with passengers as the representative of the airline. This must be done with tact and consideration. Cursing at passengers is a gross violation of that job.” Panken added that he would be shocked if any court or arbitrator ruled that Slater should be reinstated.

Jeanne Bender, a Billings, Montana, attorney with Holland & Hart LLP, noted that she felt Slater’s pain: “I often want to yell at rude passengers who bring on more luggage than is allowed and then try to jam it into the bins or bonk you on the head with a loaded backpack as they go by. If his exit was a resignation, it was a spectacular one. The beer added just the right panache to the slide out, but I suppose he has to be fired since he did use profanity over the public address system.”

Kara Shea, a Nashville, Tennessee, attorney with Miller & Martin PLLC, was also sympathetic to Slater’s predicament but agreed that he should be fired: “Dealing with difficult customers in a civil manner is part of being a flight attendant, and if he cannot do that, then this is not the job for him. Being ‘stressed’ is not a disability, even under the revised Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), and doesn’t excuse this kind of behavior.”

Shea added that she was “certain the airline has procedures to be followed if a passenger becomes belligerent or physically violent, and Mr. Slater clearly did not follow these procedures. Likewise, I’m certain that releasing the chute at that time was a violation of airline policy, and I would not be surprised if Mr. Slater also violated a slew of federal safety regulations during the course of this incident. These are major infractions that can’t be ignored just because Mr. Slater was having a bad day.”

Finally, Albert Vreeland with Lehr Middlebrooks & Vreeland, P.C., in Birmingham, Alabama, responded while riding on an airplane. He agreed that JetBlue should fire Slater: “While it may be entertaining to watch someone vent toward jerks like we all fantasize about, flight attendants, like managers, are paid for their good judgment and ability to handle pressure. There can be no tolerance for lapses. Key positions have to be held to a higher standard.”

Before signing off his e-mail, Vreeland noted that he had to go because his flight attendant was making him shut down his computer, and “I don’t want to cause a USA Today incident.”

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4 thoughts on “Eject Him! Attorneys Say JetBlue Shouldn’t Let Employee’s Tirade Slide”

  1. Jetblue needs to focus on why this problem happened in the first place. Every airline has a policy about carry ons. ENFORCE it. The passenger should have never been let on the plane in the first place. the problem is not the employee it is the the enforcement of the rules that are already in place.

  2. Would you hire this person if he applied for a job with your company? While he may be a sort of folk hero, I don’t think anyone would want to employee someone that cannot handle stress in the workplace at this time. Though I still have to say, bless him!

  3. Clearly this event was the tipping point in Mr. Slater’s ability to contain his feelings about those he was paid to serve. Why this was not picked up by the company’s internal monitoring systems is the true mystery. Employee frustrations and other QWL (Quality of Work Life) issues are the driving forces behind recent union successes, which are, in turn, always signs of management being asleep at the wheel. So, the question is not “What to do about Mr. Slater?,” but “What does the company need to do to keep any other employee getting anywhere near the braking point?”

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