A British Airways pilot who once flew the Boeing 747 Jumbojet has lost an employment tribunal claim against the airline for discrimination, harassment and unlawful deduction of wages because he refused to wear a face mask during the pandemic.
Peter Burch has worked for British Airways since 2001 and was the Captain of short-haul aircraft before transferring to the airline’s long-haul fleet more than 15 years ago as a First Officer.
Burch worked on the iconic Boeing 747 before the ageing aircraft was unceremoniously dumped at the height of the pandemic when BA was slashing costs and feared that travel demand would take many years to return.
With the Queen of the Skies now retired, First Officer Burch spent most of the pandemic grounded and on furlough until December 2021 when he was recalled to be trained on the Boeing 777 fleet.
His first trip back from the pandemic was meant to be to Miami on February 10, 2022, when, like many airlines, British Airways still had a face mask mandate in force. The night before the flight, however, Burch says he had a “major stress reaction” to an email from a training Captain reminding him of the requirement to wear a face mask.
He called in sick and later told managers that he did not agree with wearing a mask.
Burch was, however, rostered another flight on February 22, and on this occasion, he attended the crew report centre but didn’t wear a face mask, telling managers that he was exempt.
But a training Captain didn’t accept Burch’s self-declared exemption, and he was ‘stood down’ and effectively unable to work because he wasn’t willing to wear a mask.
First Officer Burch said he didn’t want to wear a face mask because he was a “sovereign being who has a right to breathe freely and should not be subjected to arbitrary and pointless rules”.
During an employment tribunal hearing, Burch said he suffered anxiety just from the thought of having a wear a face mask.
“Bound up in this anxiety is the fear that I might come across another trainer, or line captain, or any petty authoritarian, who believes that they can attempt to make me wear a mask because everyone else does,” Burch said.
Burch argued that British Airways discriminated against him because his decision not to wear a face mask was based on a genuine philosophical belief which came about after doing his own research, which is protected under the Equality Act 2010.
“During the time I was absent from work, I read a lot of information about COVID-19 and found that I was increasingly in disagreement with the government response to the pandemic and experienced increasing anxiety about public health policy,” Burch told the tribunal.
“I was frightened by what I believe to be government overreach and I became very concerned about the future.”
The tribunal, however, dismissed his claim after concluding that his decision not to wear a mask wasn’t a philosophical belief because Burch admitted that he might change his mind about mask-wearing his compelling new evidence was found about the efficacy of masks.
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.