A group of veteran United Airlines flight attendants who were terminated for allegedly bullying and harassing a junior crew member during a two-hour Whatsapp conversation have accused the carrier of age discrimination in a new lawsuit filed in district court in New Jersey.
The six ex-flight attendants, one of whom had worked for PanAm and then United for 55 years before she was fired in 2021, said they were terminated as part of a “purge” of older crew members in favor of younger and more junior flight attendants by the Chicago-based airline.
Cheryl Bendetsen, Barbara Marovich, Janice Curran, Tammara Cook, Fred Estaño and Marysol Chaparro accuse their former employer of breaching the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, as well as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination as they were all purser’s based out of United’s Newark Liberty hub.
The Whatsapp chat took place on March 6, 2021, in a group which was only open to 50 pursers based in Newark. During the two-hour conversation, members of the group discussed a particular flight attendant who had been allegedly taking photos of colleagues violating United’s face mask policy and posting it on Facebook groups.
One “well-respected” purser based out of Washington Dulles had already lost his job for an alleged mask violation stemming from photos shared on social media. Some members of the Whatsapp group were concerned that this flight attendant was about to be transferred to Newark.
Despite ground rules that prohibited anyone in the Whatsapp group from sharing conversations outside the group, screenshots of the March 6 chat about this flight attendant were “surreptitiously” obtained by United.
United accused the six terminated pursers of bullying and harassment and later retaliation, although lawyers representing the six say these accusations are “totally false and did not occur”.
In contrast, the lawsuit alleges that junior flight attendants were allowed to make egregious comments about veteran ‘senior mamas’ in public Facebook groups without fear of reprisals.
In one group called ‘The Forgotten 5500,’ which was set up for the 5,500 most junior United flight attendants who were furloughed during the pandemic, there were allegedly claims of “bodily harm, extensive harassment and a barrage of insults” directed at senior crew members.
Flight attendants in that group went unpunished the lawsuit claims, whereas the ‘senior six’ say that despite years of dedicated and trouble-free service to United, the airline ignored its own ‘progressive discipline’ system and terminated them all for a relatively minor first offense.
“The actions of United against plaintiffs alleged here were taken because of their age,” the lawsuit claims. “Plaintiffs’ age was a motivating factor in United’s actions. But for their age, plaintiffs would not have been terminated from their employment or received undue harsh discipline.”
Last year, United was forced to pay two veteran flight attendants more than $2 million in compensation after a federal appeals court found that the airline had fired the long-serving flight attendants because of their senior age.
A complaint had been made against the pair for breaking United’s rules by watching a movie on an iPad while on duty, so a supervisor was tasked with observing them during a short flight between Denver and San Francisco around five weeks later.
During this flight, the supervisor claims to have observed the flight attendants break a slew of safety and service standards. One was seen smoking an e-cigarette during the flight, both flight attendants sat on metal galley boxes in violation of safety rules, and they watched a video on an iPad together.
In their lawsuit, the pair didn’t deny breaking United’s rules but argued these were minor and commonplace and that the airline had violated its own internal discipline rules – including ignoring progressive discipline and going straight for termination.
Earlier this year, another ex-flight attendant said in a separate lawsuit that United’s face mask policy made crew members “crazy, demanding, ego-driven control freaks”.
In a statement, a spokesperson for United Airlines told us: “United Airlines has zero tolerance for bullying or harassment in the workplace and we intend to vigorously defend our position.”
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.