Whistle Stop

Did Northwest Airlines try to muzzle a whistleblower?

Flying, we have been told for years, is the safest mode of travel. Airplanes are winged marvels, over-engineered to a fault, with the kinds of redundant systems and safety protections no one buying, say, a Honda Civic would be willing to pay extra for.

When planes do crash, the thinking goes, the cause is usually something out of left field, like a terrorist attack or a suicidal pilot. Perhaps a catastrophic mechanical fluke, or a series of them--small things failing simultaneously and against the odds.

After all, the people who fix and fly the planes want them to go up and come back down intact just as much as the passengers do, we're told. Trained, licensed, and often backed by strong unions, they can be counted upon to put the public's safety ahead of their own job security. And if their bosses don't like it, well, there are systems to protect whistleblowers, aren't there ?

 

By all accounts, Thomas Regner believed in these things. A Northwest Airlines mechanic, Regner was described as a stickler for details, the kind of guy who spent his spare time finding out how his co-workers handled particularly challenging repairs. He even kept the "blue cards"--extra, unused carbons of maintenance orders he'd written up--on planes he worked on. When his shift ended before a challenging repair on a particular plane was completed, he'd use the cards to track what was done to resolve the problem. Frequently, he'd learn something new. His diligence served him well. Within a few years he had been promoted to crew chief.

But in the spring of 1998, that changed, according to court records. Regner noted a series of problems with the planes his crew was working on. Upset that several aircraft hadn't been properly fixed before they were put back into passenger service, he began reporting safety violations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He kept those blue cards, too, perhaps worried--because of an ongoing labor-management tussle--that he would need a record of his role. In fact, he would later argue, his FAA-issued license required him to take his obligation to safeguard the flying public seriously.

Northwest didn't see Regner's actions in the same light. In April 1998, the company fired him, contending that he was really participating in a mechanics' work slowdown in protest of stalled contract negotiations. For three and a half years he and his union fought to get his job back. Ultimately, a federal arbitrator concluded that Regner had been motivated by concern for public safety, and that there was no evidence he was involved in monkey-wrenching.

And by his advocates' lights, that's as much good news as the flying public can glean from Regner's case. Indeed, it appears that Northwest won't be made to answer for what it did to him. At the time Regner was fired, the federal government had no mechanism for protecting people like him. And the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ruled that he can't sue Northwest under the state's law against punishing whistleblowers.

The supreme irony is that if Regner made raincoats or spatulas, or filed contracts in the basement of an insurance company, that wouldn't be the case. But despite the fact that airplane mechanics, pilots, and flight attendants take responsibility for hundreds of lives every day, they have some of the weakest protections of all American workers.

For Lee Seham, the attorney who represents Northwest's mechanics, there's only one important question to ask about the whistleblower protection Regner got: "Is it enough to make the next guy want to stick his neck out?"

No one who flies will feel very good about the answer.

 

It's easy to see why no one sets out to become a whistleblower. Usually it's happenstance that thrusts a reluctant employee into the role. Few are lauded as heroes, and even those whose names briefly become the stuff of headlines face uncertain futures. The ugliest scenes in The Insider, the movie about former tobacco exec Jeffrey Wigand, depict his life falling apart as a result of his disclosures. And whatever eventually befalls Enron vice president Sherron Watkins, it's a safe bet Fortune 500 honchos aren't tripping over each other to make her an offer.

Contacted for this story, a company spokesman would say only that "Mr. Regner's termination had absolutely nothing to do with airline safety or any reporting of safety issues." Thomas Regner himself is back on Northwest's maintenance line and he declined to be interviewed. But the record in his case suggests that he, too, was thrust reluctantly into the limelight. According to co-workers and court documents, after being fired from Northwest, Regner lost his house and spent several fruitless years trying to land another job as a mechanic. He was made a scapegoat, his co-workers say, and he paid a high price.

When Regner was fired in April 1998, tensions at Northwest Airlines' Twin Cities maintenance facility had reached a fever pitch. Members of the mechanics' union had been working without a contract for more than two years, and their attempts to negotiate a new one weren't going anywhere. For many, the dispute had personal overtones. The union's last contract had included major concessions designed to help Northwest recover from the industry-wide financial crisis of the mid-'90s. Yet while the machinists waited for the airline to make it up to them, Northwest execs were discovered exercising their stock options.

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