A pilot who was fired by United Airlines for failing to comply with its controversial COVID-19 vaccine mandate is now suing the carrier in the Los Angeles Superior Court for a litany of allegations, including disability discrimination, harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination.
Andrew Risk filed the lawsuit late last month claiming unspecified compensatory and punitive damages against the airline following his dismissal last December for what his lawyers describe as “false and pretextual” reasons.
The veteran pilot had worked for United Airlines for more than 14 years and was flying out of its Los Angeles base when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in August 2021 – the same month that United became the first airline in the United States to issue a wide-sweeping vaccine mandate.
Risk, who was at time unvaccinated, suffered classic COVID-19 symptoms, including a loss of taste and smell, as well as difficulty breathing. The 48-year-old pilot was pulled from his schedule and told that he should remain off work until his sense of smell returned.
A month later, Risk met with a specialist airmen medical examiner who said he couldn’t return to work because he had been diagnosed with poor lungs as a result of his infection and was still suffering from breathing difficulties.
At the same appointment, Risk says he asked about getting the COVID vaccination because of United’s vaccine mandate, but the doctor advised him against getting vaccinated because he could put him at risk of “severe harm”.
Risk informed the Chief Pilot at United’s LAX base and requested a leave of absence but was soon called in for a meeting over his failure to comply with the vaccine mandate. That meeting was apparently cancelled because it was clear that Risk remained unvaccinated due to his recent diagnosis, but Risk then applied for a longer-term vaccine exemption.
In late October 2021, United told Risk that his exemption request on medical grounds had been denied but during subsequent meetings with the airline, Risk says he showed doctors records indicating why he couldn’t yet get vaccinated.
On December 16, 2021, Risk was told that he had been terminated for failing to get vaccinated.
United Airlines says its vaccine mandate applied to around 67,000 employees based in the U.S. and the mandate helped the carrier achieve a vaccination rate of more than 99 per cent. Chief executive Scott Kirby claims the mandate helped prevent serious illness and death amongst workers during the Omicron surge in early 2022.
Around 2,200 employees were granted a religious or medical vaccination exemption and 200 workers were fired for failing to get the vaccine or win an exemption. Only 63 percent of medical exemption requests were granted by the airline.
Most frontline employees who won an exemption were placed on unpaid leave in November 2021 but they were allowed to return to work in March 2022. United no longer has a vaccine mandate in place.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.