Houston Chronicle: United Airlines’ wrongheaded fight against attendant’s sexual harassment claims

Excerpt of an article published in Houston Chronicle, August 2018.

Read the full article here.

… United had the chance to do right by a flight attendant whose pilot ex-boyfriend stalked her and posted revenge porn on the Internet. But they blew it.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against United last week in San Antonio seeking damages for the attendant, who is identified as Jane Doe to protect her privacy. Here are the facts, according to court records.

Mark Uhlenbrock, a United captain in command of flight crews, was dating Doe in 2006 and took nude and provocative photos and videos of her. One day, a United gate agent told Doe he’d found the photos on a website, and that he thought he’d been messaging with her because someone claiming to be her had emailed him more images.

Doe realized that Uhlenbrock was circulating her private photos, which she intended only for him. Uhlenbrock refused to stop posting them so Doe broke up with him.

“Over the next decade, Uhlenbrock continued to regularly post sexually explicit photos, videos, and stories about Ms. Doe on the internet,” the federal complaint alleges. “Ms. Doe came to learn that these images had been viewed by at least two of her United Airlines co-workers and were presumably accessible to tens of thousands of United Airlines personnel and co-workers, along with countless other people in the U.S. and around the world.”

Uhlenbrock included Doe’s name, address, employer and home base in San Antonio with the images. He declared she was a “new reason to ‘Fly the Friendly Skies.’” He clearly intended to hurt her reputation at United and damage her ability to continue working in commercial aviation.

In 2011, Doe informed United’s In-Flight Base Operations Manager and an In-Flight Supervisor of Uhlenbrock’s behavior and the court orders. She produced copies of the posts, including semi-nude images of her in a United uniform. She provided sworn testimony where Uhlenbrock admitted what he’d done.

A reasonable person might conclude that Uhlenbrock’s behavior, including his contempt for court orders, might call into question his judgment while flying a valuable aircraft with hundreds of people on board. A reasonable manager might have a problem with a supervisor sexually harassing a subordinate while off-duty and damaging the airline’s brand by showing her partially unclothed in a United uniform and employing the company’s motto with sexual innuendo.

United Airlines managers, though, said that what Uhlenbrock does on his own time is his business. In fact, Uhlenbrock’s chief pilot, James Simons, provided a letter of reference in 2012 for Uhlenbrock stating that he did not have any “flight-related or training issues that have required discipline, counseling, or extra training.”

United left it to Doe to figure out how to avoid flying with Uhlenbrock by signing up for flights she believed he didn’t want to fly. In 2013, a United attendant showed Doe new posts, from Uhlenbrock’s IP address, that included her old images. Doe and her attorney complained again, but with the same result.

Doe went on medical leave in April 2015 and the FBI arrested Uhlenbrock for stalking her a month later. Managers at United questioned him but decided to keep him in the cockpit.

When Uhlenbrock confessed and pleaded guilty, accepting a 41-month prison sentence, United placed him on long-term disability. When he reported to prison, United allowed him to retire with full benefits.

Does United Airlines finally recognize how badly it handled this case? Is the CEO promising to do better in the future? No.

“We have reviewed the allegations in the complaint and disagree with (the) Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s description of the situation,” United spokesman Charles Hobart told my colleague Patrick Danner in an email. “United does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace and will vigorously defend against this case.”

None of the key facts are in dispute. Uhlenbrock harassed Doe, Doe complained, several judges agreed and United refused to act. Before filing suit, the commission gave United a chance to settle with Doe and commit to behaving better. Instead the airline chooses to fight.

This story highlights how stalking, sexual harassment, and pornography (such as revenge pornography) often overlap. Nude images are regularly shared as revenge by individuals after a break-up, or for an individual to blackmail and exploit another person. Recognizing how these issues overlaps points towards a need for improved corporate policies to address these problems.

This story also highlights United Airlines’ repeated failures to address sexual exploitation in a holistic way. You can learn more about how United Airlines apparently fails to protect its staff and crew members from sexual harassment at EndSexualExploitation.org/United.

You can also take action here to email United Airlines executives:

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