Renee Steinaker, a flight attendant who sued Southwest Airlines, talks to The Arizona Republic about the bathroom images she saw on a cockpit iPad. Nick Oza, The Republic | azcentral.com
For 21 years, Renee Steinaker has worked for Southwest Airlines, an airline beloved by loyal customers for its lighthearted atmosphere and humorous safety briefings.
But the Scottsdale-based flight attendant says what she saw on a captain’s cockpit iPad on Feb. 27, 2017, was no joke, even as the airline and its pilots union characterize what she saw as a “poor attempt at humor.”
“With my every being — every bit of myself — I knew this was wrong. And I could not let something like this go. I knew it was the right thing to do to report it. I thought I was safely able to report this and that it would be handled,” Steinaker told The Arizona Republic in an interview at her home Friday morning.
Instead, Steinaker has sued the employer she says she loves, Southwest Airlines, and the pilots on the flight from Pittsburgh to Phoenix.
“It’s unfortunate it got to the point of this because it should have been handled different in the beginning. It should have never gotten to this point,” Steinaker said.
What Steinaker says she saw
About 2½ hours into the flight, Steinaker alleges in her lawsuit, she was called to the cockpit to allow Capt. Terry Graham to use the restroom. Southwest Airlines policy requires two crew members in the cockpit at all times.
That’s when she noticed something strange on the company-issued iPad next to the captain’s seat.
“I noticed on his iPad there was a picture of him that I realized was moving, and I could hear it in conjunction with what I was seeing on the iPad of him in the forward lavatory,” Steinaker said.
Steinaker said she felt shock and disbelief. She took a photo of the iPad with her cellphone.
“I could not believe that this was happening. I felt disgusted and horrified about what I saw,” she said.
Steinaker said she then questioned First Officer Ryan Russell, who she described as looking panicked and stumbling over his words. She said he told her this was a security measure on all 737-800s and that there were cameras in all three bathrooms on board.
She did not believe him.
“I can’t believe that would be a security measure where people could be violated by being video recorded in a lavatory,” she said.
Steinaker and crew report the incident
Steinaker returned to the back of the plane, told the rest of the flight crew what happened and showed them the picture. For the remaining hours of the flight, she said, they were frightened about what Steinaker saw. When the plane landed, Steinaker said, the pilots immediately left the plane, in violation of company policy.
The lawsuit alleges that the two men left in such haste that Graham left behind a loaded gun in violation of FAA policy.
Steinaker said she and the rest of the crew reported the incident to the base manager and the Western regional manager. They asked her to identify the pilots in the employee lounge at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which she did.
“We stressed the urgency of the fact that this aircraft was about to take off and they had an hour ground time until leaving for Nashville,” Steinaker said.
She said she thought managers would contact law enforcement and stop the pilots from flying.
“With the picture I had brought forward and with my verbal statement for these allegations, I thought it had enough merit that this plane should not have been able to take off,” Steinaker said.
The lawsuit alleges that the two men still fly for Southwest Airlines. It also alleges that Steinaker and her husband, David, a 26-year veteran flight attendant with the airline, have faced harassment and retaliation for Renee reporting the incident.
“It’s definitely taken a toll on us. Emotionally. Physically, ” she said.
“It affected all of my immediate family.”
Southwest, pilots union respond
Southwest Airlines said it investigated and there were no cameras on the aircraft.
In a previous statement, Southwest Airlines told The Arizona Republic:
“Southwest will vigorously defend the lawsuit. When the incident happened two years ago, we investigated the allegations and addressed the situation with the crew involved. We can confirm from our investigation that there was never a camera in the lavatory; the incident was an inappropriate attempt at humor which the company did not condone.”
An attorney for the two pilots declined to comment and referred The Arizona Republic to a statement by the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association this week. It stated:
“Southwest Airlines has never placed cameras and never videoed anyone in any lavatory, and the pilots on Flight 1088 did not video anyone. The incident, which occurred over two years ago, was a poor attempt at humor where the pilot took a selfie video from the chest up, fully clothed, in the lavatory of a completely different airplane months before Flight 1088 and then replayed the exact same selfie video on his iPad when Ms. Steinaker came into the cockpit.
“All crew members, including the flight attendants, were debriefed on and informed of such by Southwest Airlines after a thorough investigation was conducted by Southwest Airlines that revealed no corroboration of the flight attendant’s allegations.”
Steinaker: ‘This was not a joke’
Steinaker said she was never informed about the results of the investigation and was told by management not to talk about the incident.
Her attorney is concerned about whether evidence was preserved. Steinaker and the rest of the crew requested the cockpit voice recorder and iPad be seized.
“I am not aware of the facts of whether or not they did those things. I am concerned because that was crucial evidence that was made obvious to the management and whether or not they met their obligation to preserve that evidence is completely unknown to me at this point,” said Ronald L.M. Goldman, a Los Angeles-based aviation attorney representing the Steinakers.
Steinaker said the incident should not be dismissed as merely a part of Southwest’s friendly, fun-loving culture.
“This was not a joke,” she said. “There’s nothing about this whatsoever that was humorous behavior. It’s sexual harassment, hostile work environment and it’s safety concerns.”
While most people think of flight attendants as the employees handing out pretzels and drinks, Steinaker hopes people remember that flight attendants are on the aircraft for the safety of the passengers.
“The focus always needs to be the safety of passengers and crew members on board. Hands down, that is the predominant reason we are there, so anything that deviates from safety is a very dangerous thing on board,” she said.
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