United flight canceled after upset pilot refuses to fly
By Roger Yu, USA TODAY
United canceled a flight from Salt Lake City Thursday afternoon after the pilot announced to passengers that he was too upset to fly, according to one passenger on board.
The pilot, who may have been involved in a labor-related dispute with colleagues, said that he didn't feel he could fly safely, said Paul Jacobson, an energy company executive who was aboard United Flight 416 to Denver.
United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said in an e-mailed statement that the flight was canceled according to company procedures designed to ensure flight crews are prepared to fly. The airline re-accommodated its customers on other flights and will give them "goodwill gestures," which may include miles and travel certificates, she said.
Urbanski declined to identify the pilot or provide details of the incident, but she did not dispute the passenger's account.
"We will conduct a full investigation of the events leading up to the cancellation and take appropriate, necessary action," she wrote in the e-mail.
David Kelly, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents United pilots, said the union won't comment on the incident.
The Federal Aviation Administration says it's up to the airlines to determine when and how pilots can walk away from the cockpit if they feel unfit to fly. "But we'd expect that if the pilots aren't fit to fly, they would not fly," said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
Jacobson said he saw the pilot in a heated cellphone conversation at the gate before he boarded, and overheard the pilot saying that "he was going to complain to the union."
After the passengers were seated, the pilot made his announcement.
"I'm roughly paraphrasing here, but the pilot came on the PA and said, 'some of you may have witnessed an incident I was involved in at the gate. I'm not going to go into the details, but it was an interpersonal confrontation that upset me significantly to the point where I'm not focused enough to fly you to Denver. I feel like I may not be calmed and focused enough to fly to Denver for another hour,' " Jacobson said.
The passengers reacted to the pilot's announcement with a collective groan. "I'm going to give him credit for standing in front of people and saying that," Jacobson added. "Still it was a very unusual situation."
Passengers were allowed to get off the plane until it was ready to leave, and most people did so after the announcement, Jacobson said.
Jacobson said another passenger questioned the crew and that passenger told him the incident stemmed from crewmembers from another United flight observing the pilot wearing his hat. United's pilots union has been urging pilots to remove their hats when they "are likely to be viewed by management," as a form of protest, according to a notice on ALPA's website.
"In the concourse, on the jetway, wherever. Show solidarity with your fellow pilots, show management our solidarity. Don't wear your hat," it says.
In a statement dated Jan. 15, the union instructed members to adopt the practice because "now is the time to show management that this pilot group is serious about regaining what was stripped from us during bankruptcy."
Hundreds of United employees, including pilots, flight attendants and machinists, rallied last week in Southern California to protest the management's decision to set aside stock worth about $130 million to fund a new incentive plan for executives while the company plans to cut routes and lay off up to 1,600 employees.
"I fly United a lot and I understand that they're operating under difficult circumstances. And they do a good job. But it's one thing to suffer from mechanical failure or bad weather, but it's quite another when internal strife rises to flight cancellation," Jacobson said.
He called his corporate travel manager, who rebooked him on a Southwest flight. United informed Jacobson that he will be reimbursed for the leg of the trip, about $120.