A Southwest Airlines flight attendant has filed suit against the airline, claiming that she caught a pilot watching footage from a hidden lavatory camera in 2017. After she reported the incident, the lawsuit alleges, the airline covered it up.
The flight attendant, Renee Steinaker, was called into the cockpit by the captain, Terry Graham, 2½ hours into Phoenix-bound Flight 1088. Southwest requires two staff members to be present in the cockpit at all times, and Graham needed to relieve himself. There, Steinaker claims she found an iPad live-streaming footage of Graham from the lavatory.
The co-pilot, Ryan Russell, allegedly told Steinaker that the covert camera was part of a new top-secret security system installed across Southwest's fleet and that she needed to keep it "on the down-low.” When Graham returned, he hid the iPad and refused to answer further questions.
Along with the iPad, Graham may also have had a gun. He was a federal flight deck officer and when he and Russell fled the scene after landing he left behind a loaded weapon, a violation of FAA regulations, the lawsuit alleges.
The two pilots, both based near Southwest's Dallas headquarters, have denied the allegations in court documents. So has the airline, which dismissed the incident as an "inappropriate attempt at humor" in a statement.
According to the emailed statement, Southwest "swiftly investigated," found no cameras and "addressed the reported event with the crew involved."
The airline is known for encouraging its employees to lighten the onboard mood with humorous renditions of the federal aviation regulations. "We don't take ourselves too seriously," the company recently posted on Twitter.
It's been a winning strategy. Southwest recently reported excellent third-quarter financial results, despite canceling more than 100 flights per day because of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8. Its profit jumped 7% as prices rose on increased demand.
But this year, Southwest dropped from first to third in customer satisfaction ratings among major airlines. And it is in the midst of contentious contract negotiations with its employees, including its flight attendants. The airline sued its mechanics earlier this year for sabotaging its operations.
After the Feb. 27, 2017, flight, Steinaker reported the incident and was told to keep quiet. "If this got out, if this went public, no one, I mean no one, would ever fly our airline again,” she claimed her boss told her.
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After Steinaker shared photos of the iPad with her three fellow flight attendants on the flight as well as her husband, Southwest allegedly retaliated.
She and her husband, another flight attendant for the airline, were subject to additional monitoring in the wake of the incident. The airline assigned employees to watch them during flights and wrote off the supervision as "team building" exercises to circumvent union regulations that limit performance audits, the lawsuit alleges.
The flight attendants were also subject to random drug testing and told not to tell anyone — even their families — about what happened that day, according to the lawsuit.
Steinaker and her husband, David Steinaker, are seeking at minimum $300,000 in damages from the airline and the pilots for "physical, emotional and mental injuries as a result of the incident." According to Renee Steinaker, the trauma left her unable to work for days.