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Flight attendants allege American Airlines ignored complaints about pilot

The complaint filed Thursday seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. An AA representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Credit: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, file
FILE - In this March 31, 2020 file photo American Airlines planes are parked at Pittsburgh International Airport in Imperial, Pa.

LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Calif. — Two longtime American Airlines flight attendants are suing the carrier, alleging they were sexually harassed during a flight by a pilot who made comments to them about sadomasochism and asked them for alcohol.

"This case is a shocking example of a patriarchal playground where almost exclusively male `assets' known as pilots are allowed to roam free to assault flight attendants as they please while American sits idly by, failing to properly train its workforce or otherwise restrain abusive misconduct towards the employees or the customers it is obligated to protect, plaintiffs Janette Beckman and Leeanne Hansen allege in their Los Angeles Superior Court whistleblower retaliation, sexual battery and assault suit.

The complaint filed Thursday seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. An AA representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Hansen and Beckman were hired by AA as flight attendants more than 40 years ago and both are over age 60, the suit states.

"Plaintiffs should be continuing to perform excellently in jobs to which they have dedicated their lives," the suit states. "Instead, they find themselves disgraced among their peers and isolated from the company to which they have devoted the past four-plus decades, just because they had the courage to stand up to a pilot who sexually assaulted and harassed them in the workplace."

Both women allege they were sexually assaulted, battered and harassed by pilot and first officer Sigsbee "John" Nelson. The say they were working on a flight leaving from their home base of Los Angeles when Nelson, in search of alcohol, walked to the aft galley of the plane, knowing there was a supply.

Nelson allegedly asked for alcohol from Beckman, but she was concerned about the safety of hundreds of passengers and her fellow crew members and denied his request, the suit states.

Dissatisfied with Beckman's response, Nelson sexually harassed her, telling her "I know you like S&M and I know you like to be tied up," the suit states.

Beckman "made it clear Nelson's conduct was unwelcome," the suit states.

Nelson then allegedly turned toward Hansen and, seeing lanyards in her bag, stated, "Oh, you're into ropes? Do you wanna come to my room and tie me up?"

Later, allegedly dissatisfied with the response he received from Hansen and Beckman, he walked up behind Hansen and "grabbed Hansen by her hips, dug his nails into her hip bones and repeatedly pushed against her body."

The women reported Nelson's alleged conduct to the captain in charge of the flight and also expressed concern over his potential drinking of alcohol during the flight, jeopardizing the safety of passengers and the flight crew, the suit states.

Acting unsurprised, the captain told the women that while in the cockpit, Nelson "boasted of his sexual conquests with underage prostitutes ... and visits to strip clubs during layovers, even showing pictures he kept as mementos," the suit states.

The suit further alleges that on one trip, Nelson "imbibed so much while in uniform on the flight crew's shuttle that he drunkenly fell down and split his pants open."

Instead of taking prompt action in response to the reported harassment, the captain asked the plaintiffs what they wanted him to do, the suit states.

Hansen was forced to take stress leave because of Nelson's alleged harassment, the suit states. Beckman tried to continue working until she was forced to fly with Nelson a week later, which she only did because the same captain said he would look out for her, the suit states.

But despite the captain's presence, Nelson "seized another opportunity to harass Beckman by approaching her from behind, getting too close to her and whispering in her ear," the suit states.

Believing AA would not protect her, Beckman also went on stress leave, the suit states.

The plaintiffs each filed complaints with AA's human resources department, the suit states. Shortly thereafter, AA offered the pair paid leave until an investigation was completed, the suit states.

The paid leave was retracted a few days later and the plaintiffs were put on indefinite unpaid leaves of absence, even though Nelson was put on paid leave, the suit states.

Hansen and Beckman remained on unpaid leave for months as rumors spread and caused them emotional distress and financial losses, the suit states.

Some six months after the women filed their complaints, AA sent them a letter stating that the matter had been closed and that "appropriate" action was taken, the suit states.

Although both plaintiffs are on doctor-approved leaves, AA sent Beckman a disciplinary letter threatening to fire her if she missed more time, the suit states.

AA gave Nelson preferential treatment during the investigation and it is "likely" he received a "substantial economic benefit when he ultimately departed the company," according to the suit. 

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