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Going Direct: You Can’t Make This Up: Pilot Sues Airline For Emotional Distress After Mechanical Failure Led To PTSD

The first officer filed suit against QantasLink after one of the plane’s engines failed in flight, leading, she says, to post traumatic stress disorder.

Jacinda Cottee, a former first officer for QantasLink
Jacinda Cottee, a former first officer for QantasLink
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A former QantasLink pilot is suing the regional carrier to the tune of $780,000 for suffering and damages from a case of PTSD she says was caused by a 2018 mechanical failure of one of the Boeing 717’s engines, which resulted in the shutdown of the engine and an emergency landing. The flight, from Alice Springs to Brisbane, was about 70 nm from Brisbane when it lost the engine. The plane landed without incident, and no one was injured.

The first officer, Jacinda Cottee, says she left the airline after the incident because of PTSD caused by the failure. It’s not just that it was a mechanical failure. Cottee, through her attorneys, says that QantasLink failed to properly maintain the aircraft, leading to the failed engine, a Rolls-Royce BR700. QantasLink has told Australian outlets that Rolls-Royce said the failed blade was because of a manufacturing defect.

My first reaction when I read this was disbelief and, to be totally honest, anger. What we do as pilots is simple. We accept that when we take off on a flight, the aircraft we’re flying is airworthy. If anything happens to it along the way, well, that’s why we get paid the big bucks.

And Cottee wasn’t just any pilot. She did, remember, work as part of a two-person flight crew to bring the 717 in for a safe landing at Brisbane after the engine failure. She has also been recognized for her work in aviation. She’s the first woman of color to wear a Qantas uniform, and she has received numerous awards for her work in aviation. She said recently, acknowledging the recognition she had earned for her historic place in Australian airline history, that her advice for younger Australians was, “People still stop me to congratulate me at how proud they are to see female pilot, let alone one of colour. My response is the same ‘Action Inspires Action’—you can achieve your dreams, too. Be the best possible human you can be.”

She went on to say, “You never know who is watching. If I can show my nephew that female airline pilots are the norm and not a rarity, what an amazing world can be created. By demonstrating to my niece what possibilities are out there for her to choose from, a more diverse and strong world is created in knowing that she is supported.”

When I first read this passage, Cottee’s words rang hollow. If she indeed wants to be a role model, then filing suit against her airline for something that I believe is part of what we sign up for is not only bad precedent, but bad form. Pilots are in the hero game. Most of the hours we fly are completely unremarkable. But when our business-as-usual flying is shattered by a sudden emergency, that’s when we’re really needed. That’s part of the special status we have as pilots. To be ready to act when something bad happens to save lives and complain not a whit about it afterward. After all, that’s what our training is for, and airline pilots do it regularly when they ride the sim and deal with every manner of emergency they might face, including the loss of an engine in cruise. That’s the role professional pilots accept, and that’s exactly the circumstance the training prepares them for. 

And I’m not doubting Cottee’s claim of PTSD. It’s a real thing, it’s awful and it’s a mental health reality we need to address more fully as a society and an industry. But it has to stop short of suing your employer over an incident that’s just part of what happens when incredibly complex machines are pushed to their limits for thousands of hours of service.

Would Cottee have a valid claim if QantasLink is found to indeed have mismanaged the maintenance of the engine that failed? That’s a tougher call. Anyone who has been around aviation for any length of time knows that there’s no shortage of operations that have let planes fly when they should’ve been in the shop with mechanical issues and known hazards to flight. There’s no evidence that QantasLink did any such thing.

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Then again, if the airline were found culpable, that changes everything. In the wake of Boeing’s disgraceful management of its 737 MAX program, it’s hard for me to summon much sympathy for airlines that skirt regulations, as Boeing did. And them paying for pain and suffering for the losses that human beings suffer through those actions should be just the beginning of any such airline’s legal penalties.

But in cases where the operators of the aircraft maintain and schedule service in good faith and while abiding by all relevant regulations, we as pilots need to recognize that bad things happen to good airplanes and good people, and if we wind up the victim of ill fortune through no one’s fault, we need to do what can to recover and move on.

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