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Drunk flight attendant loses unfair dismissal claim

By Portner Press on April 12th, 2019
  1. Termination of Employment
  2. Dismissal

A Qantas flight attendant who applied for unfair dismissal remedy after being sacked for drinking while on duty has lost her claim.

The employee, who had been at her job for 31 years, told the Fair Work Commission that working at Qantas was “her life” and that the she “would have been prepared to undertake any program to keep her job or accept any other punishment from Qantas other than dismissal”.

But in spite of her long service, Fair Work Commission Deputy President Geoff Bull found that the dismissal was fair.

Drinking, lying, then apologising

On an 11-hour flight from Sydney to Johannesburg, another crew member raised concerns about her behaviour. When they arrived in South Africa, the employee was breath-tested at the crew hotel where she returned a positive result.

Once she was back in Sydney, Qantas told her not to attend work until they completed an internal investigation into the incident.

During the investigation, the flight attendant said that she had drunk vodka she bought from a duty free shop at Sydney International Airport before boarding the plane. She said she tipped the remaining vodka down the drain before discarding the bottle in the bin.

However, the in-depth investigation revealed that the duty free store had no record of this transaction.

The employer presented this information to her, alleging that she had taken the alcohol from Qantas’ on-flight stores. She vehemently denied this and offered to provide a sworn statement that she was telling the truth.

But when she told a union support person she had not been truthful, he advised her not to sign a statutory declaration.

After she was asked to explain in writing why she shouldn’t be dismissed, she finally admitted she had been lying.

“I allowed the company to investigate something that I knew was false, I didn’t tell my support that I had misled the investigation until the evidence was overwhelming. I can only say that in my mind drinking company stores was worse than drinking my own.

I deeply regret being untruthful about the source of the alcohol; I panicked and I lied. As the investigation continued the lie was perpetrated and in fact caused me even greater stress in hindsight than I would have experienced I suspect that if I told the complete truth from the beginning.”

She didn’t explain how she came to consume the alcohol while on duty.

Under cross examination she said that she had drunk a quarter of a one-litre bottle of vodka mixed with soda water in the middle and in the last hour of the flight, drinking quickly on her own in the front galley to avoid detection.

Family argument led her to drink

On the night before the flight, the flight attendant said she had got into an argument with her husband and her daughter over travel arrangements she was supposed to be organising for her son’s trip to Europe. She was upset the next day as the problem and the argument hadn’t been resolved.

The end of an otherwise ‘exemplary’ career

Drinking alcohol while on duty was “far from a trivial misdemeanour,” Deputy President Bull said.

“[The employee] occupied a safety sensitive position and for good reason was prohibited from consuming alcohol during a flight. No doubt such policies provide [the employer’s] aircraft passengers a degree of comfort that should an emergency arise the aircraft crew will not be under the influence of alcohol in responding to an emergency.”

He noted that her repeated deception and dishonesty led Qantas to conduct an unnecessarily long investigation “that it need not have embarked upon”.

“Commencing to act in a dishonest manner led [her] to continue the deception until she finally accepted that her story was no longer credible and in her words was creating such a mess which she could no longer allow to continue.”

Deputy President Bull said that the flight attendant had “a long and exemplary record of service with Qantas” and the outcome of his decision may have been different if she had been “upfront and honest when it was first alleged she had consumed alcohol from company stores while on duty”.

“It is regrettable that her poor judgement in consuming alcohol while on duty … has resulted in the loss of her employment,” he said.

Thorough investigations can mean the difference between a fair dismissal and unfair dismissal

It pays to know exactly what you’re doing.

Learn more in the following chapters of the Employment Law Practical Handbook:

W5 Workplace Investigations

H3 Misconduct

D2 Dismissal

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