What Actually Happened On That United Express Flight Where the Fight Broke Out Between Pilot and Co-Pilot

Yesterday I wrote about a Saturday afternoon United Express flight which was delayed 5 hours because the pilot and co-pilot got into a fight. I didn’t know what the fight was over, but police were called and eventually passengers were flown to Houston by another crew.

Several readers chimed in with their assumptions about what the dispute had to be about.

Jennifer: “Since a new aircraft was swapped in, don’t you think the dispute was probably about the airworthiness of the “old” aircraft and whether they should proceed with some known problem?”

Allen: “Perhaps they were fighting about a safety related item, and nothing personal.”

Ricardo Machado: “I personally think a disagreement is healthy. They are there to discuss about better routes or best attitudes towards difficult situations.”

Bill: “I’m sure this would never happen on an airline where the pilots were well paid.”

Gene B: “Why don’t you wait and get all the facts before spouting off about things you so obviously don’t understand! It could have been that one pilot noticed something unsafe about the other and refused to fly! Pilots like that are heroes for standing up for the safety of the passengers. Stories like yours are ignorant.”

Patrick Mollette: “This was not just some stupid argument or pissing contest. You claim to be an expert yet your article is poorly written, and you do not even know much about the incident. …it was 99.9% a mechanical problem. One of the pilots more likely than not wanted to push the envelope and take the more dangerous route where the other stood up and said no.”

A blog reader who was a passenger on the flight emails to share some insight:

Pilot was coming in 10 knots faster then he should have been [on arrival into Lubbock], co-pilot then radioed tower and told them, which started argument in cockpit as they landed.

Co-pilot and pilot [disembarked], we all boarded and were seated. The fight attendant proceeded with her preparation, she then announced that due to a disagreement between pilot and copilot she felt it was unsafe to fly with them, she felt our captain was unstable as did our copilot and for our protection we needed to disembark.

As I was going up the jet way [to get off the plane] our captain comes running down the jet way yelling “who told us to get off.” I was out of jet way but I could her him yelling at our flight attendant, we all waited by ticket agent stand as the last customer came out the door was closed, and 5 minutes later police arrived.

Flight attendant and co-pilot were afraid captain would do something that would put us in danger and they took a stand. We all thanked our flight attendant and the co-pilot for looking out for us.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Sounds like it might have been an overreaction made with an abundance of caution as these things are these days. Just because pilot was somewhat reactionary doesn’t mean he would in any way risk passengers lives.

  2. @Nick: Not so long ago people were jumping up and down about the Germanwings tragedy and why wasn’t the copilot pulled from duty…

    The pilot may have had extremely bad news he was trying to bottle up, and failed. Or he might be suffering from some form of serious mental imbalance. Or an undiagnosed medical condition that affects mood and rational thought. The flight crew felt unsafe, they made the call, and we’re still waiting to know if they saved lives or (justifiably) inconvenienced a planeload.

  3. hey, I was on the flight too. And I can tell you with extreme authority that the problem was that the pilot wanted to listen to Soft rock on the radio but the co pilot kept switching it to country music.

    I am a reader so you must believe me!

  4. @Kokomutz thanks but I know more detail, that I have verified, about this particular reader. Their story is also 100% corroborated with that of the first person who shared details about the flight, whom I’ve known for nearly 20 years. Now, I’ve known you for a long time which is how I know NOT to believe you….

  5. It’s awesome that there was a fight attendant ready and willing to help. Kudos to United for having the right people in place

  6. Lord, I hope this is actually what happened and that somebody didn’t give you misinformation. A FA announcing over the PA that she felt that the Captain “was unstable” is a *huge* deal, and perhaps (in my book) unprofessional. If this is indeed what happened, my guess is that she may be looking for a new job. Making that announcement casts a very dark light on the airline and the Captain, as is continues to garner attention thru social media, etc. FA training certainly would have dictated that she handle the situation with more discretion and tact. Also, the Control Towers do issue “speeding tickets” and “safety violations” to pilots and alert the airlines immediately when something serious or egregious occur . 10 knots equates to 11 mph. The reaction from the pilot of running down the jetway could likely be as a result of being unfairly sandbagged by his crew. Sounds fishy to me.

  7. @Randal: that’s one of MANY holes in this ‘story.’

    Then again, this a points, miles and credit card blog, not a newspaper.

  8. As an FAA certified Flight Instructor-airplane and instrument since 1981, I have a hard time believing this was about a pilot flying 10 knots too fast. Would be very interested in learning the true story on this.

  9. Amen, bigbirdwithsilverwings, amen. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems really, really unfair to both the Captain and to the named airline. My father was a Delta pilot for close to forty years, a check airman and a simulator instructor. He is no longer alive or I would have called him immediately to discuss. Very happy for your input here.

  10. Bigbirdwithsilverwings, does it ring true to you that the above information regarding coming in at 10 knots over speed would EVER be communicated to passengers at rage gate? In your experience, are employees of airlines even authorized to share this type of information with passengers? Does it sound like information that an airline employee would ever share with a passenger? From what I know about airlines and employees and their rules and just “the way things are done”, this doesn’t hold a single drop of water to me. Your thoughts?

  11. As an airline Captain for over 16 yrs, I can tell you that if this story is true, all 3 crew members will have to answer for their actions. Flying an approach 10 kts fast is like driving 65 in a 55 mph zone, not perfect but far from life threatening in any way unless the runway is extremely short and there are strong tail winds, deferred equipment, etc. There are currently a lot of new FO’s coming online who cannot think outside the box (the box being a simulator in this case). The captains at this airline are very experienced, unlike some of the other airlines and I can guarantee you that he was right to put both the FO and FA in their place. How he did that may have been an issue, obviously he could have handled that better, but he was probably very upset that the FO was making a mountain out of a molehill. And the FA should be disciplined for saying one single word of this to any of the passengers! Like I always try to teach my FO’s, there is more to being a good Captain than doing smooth landings every time, as long as they are safe that’s all that matters.

  12. I have been a professional pilot for well over 20 years – currently flying as an airline Captain. I totally agree with Girlee in that being 10 knots over the approach speed is far from being unsafe. The vast majority of Captains at ExpressJet Airlines are very professional and highly experienced. I also happen to know the Captain in question quite well and have nothing but complementary things to say about him; his personality, professionalism and flying abilities. Suffice it to say, I have also flown with him countless times and can personally attest to his skillfulness as an aviator.

    This situation has been over sensationalized and has drawn unwanted media attention. In fairness to the Captain (who is charged with the responsibility of operating the aircraft safely; managing his crew professionally; mitigating flight and personnel related issues, we need not be quick to cast aspersions. In earnest, he has a blemish-free record and I am proud to stand in support of him.

    Why the cops were called to ‘deal’ with the Captain who has a record of transporting thousands of passengers between destinations safely for over 10 years with this company is an absolute mystery to me.

    Regarding the actions of the flight attendant, an announcement to the passengers – stating her ‘opinion’ of the situation and instilling fear in the passengers, was quite unprofessional. This is against company policy and procedures and is quite disturbing and damaging. Accordingly, she acted unprofessionally and should be disciplined appropriately. Regarding the first officer; I don’t know how much he contributed to the situation but his approach was definitely inappropriate under the circumstances. It definitely shows a lack of judgement and professionalism.

    Based on what I know of the situation, and being a Captain myself, I would have acted in a similar manner to the Captain – upon learning of the developments in his absence, including the deplaning of the passengers without them consulting with him. The Captain is the final authority on matters relating to safety, security and comfort of the passengers, crew and aircraft and deserves a lot more respect, credit and accommodation from the passengers, crew and the media.

  13. All due respect, Gary, but it’s still hearsay to US. The reason evidence has to be presented by the person who was there is so that s/he can be cross examined and his or her credibility evaluated. I’m sure we’d love to ask some qs of these eye witnesses, were they willing to participate.

  14. “and being a Captain myself,”

    Then you better than anyone should know that there are unstable individuals who should not be flying, and there are individuals who are fine for years but then have issues and create risk or even danger for others

    But instead you circle the wagons and hit kneejerk defense mode?

    This is why there are so many corrupt and incompetent “professionals” hurting people, stealing, getting people killed, and doing so much damage for so long

    Their brethren will just support them no matter what. The goal is, never admit there is a problem.

  15. I see a logical mistake in many of the comments – especially those of the fellow pilots. There are several issues: (1) pilots landing/approach speed, (2) co-pilots reaction to issue 1 including radio contact with control, (3) The reaction of the pilot to issue 2, (4) the reaction of the co-pilot/ flight attendant to issue 3.

    Several experts (pilots) have made arguments pivoting on issue 1 only – if the landing speed was within tolerance then the pilot must have been in the right with regard to issue 3, his reaction to the co-pilot’s actions. However this is incorrect. The pilot could have been in the right with regard to 1 and 2, but wrong with regard to 3.

  16. Charles Lindburgh writes: “I see a logical mistake in many of the comments – especially those of the fellow pilots. There are several issues: (1) pilots landing/approach speed, (2) co-pilots reaction to issue 1 including radio contact with control, (3) The reaction of the pilot to issue 2, (4) the reaction of the co-pilot/ flight attendant to issue 3.

    Several experts (pilots) have made arguments pivoting on issue 1 only – if the landing speed was within tolerance then the pilot must have been in the right with regard to issue 3, his reaction to the co-pilot’s actions. However this is incorrect. The pilot could have been in the right with regard to 1 and 2, but wrong with regard to 3.”

    I respectfully disagree w/Charles….but I do agree w/all of the licensed professional pilots who have chimed in…Lindbergh is overthinking this but if one wants an example of his thinking, here’s one I learned in college:

    God is love
    love is blind
    Stevie Wonder is blind
    Stevie Wonder is god

    I dropped the class shortly thereafter. I truly doubt that the precipating issue was exceeding the approach speed by 10mph-or even 10 knots. That simply does not compute….

  17. “Pilot was coming in 10 knots faster then he should have been [on arrival into Lubbock], co-pilot then radioed tower and told them, which started argument in cockpit as they landed.”

    Isn’t there a place to get recordings of ATC radio transmissions? This could be pretty easy to verify or disprove.

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