Passengers who experienced a harrowing incident aboard a flight, during which an off-duty pilot allegedly triggered the plane’s emergency engine shutdown system, have taken legal action against the airline for jeopardizing passenger safety and to prevent future occurrences.
In a class action lawsuit filed in the King County Superior Court in Washington state, three passengers, Matthew Dolan, Theresa Stelter, and Paul Stephen, claim that they have endured significant emotional distress, including symptoms like nausea on subsequent flights, insomnia, anxiety, and distressing flashbacks related to the traumatic incident. The incident took place on Alaska Airlines flight 2059 from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco on October 22. This flight was operated by Horizon Air, an affiliate of Alaska Airlines, and both airlines are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
According to the complaint and a previous legal action filed in Oregon, the incident involved an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot, Joseph Emerson, who was permitted to occupy a cockpit jumpseat not typically assigned to paying passengers but sometimes reserved for fellow pilots.
The complaint and court records allege that during the flight, Emerson abruptly removed his earphones, informed the cockpit crew that he was “not OK,” and proceeded to “attempt to disable the aircraft by activating the fire suppression system, which would shut off fuel to the engines,” putting the plane just moments away from becoming a glider.
A struggle for control of the aircraft ensued between the active pilots and Emerson. The complaint details that this struggle only lasted for a few seconds before Emerson ceased his efforts and left the flight deck. The flight crew successfully restored the fuel supply, and the flight was subsequently diverted to Portland, Oregon.
Subsequently, Emerson made an attempt to open an emergency exit door at the rear of the aircraft, but his actions were halted by a vigilant flight attendant. According to court documents, the flight attendant overheard Emerson utter phrases such as, “I messed everything up,” and “tried to kill everybody.”
Emerson faced charges of 83 counts of attempted murder. During a court hearing in October, he pleaded not guilty, and his attorney asserted that his client “would never intentionally harm another individual.”
In a court document from October, it was revealed that Emerson admitted to not having slept for 40 hours, suffering from depression, and having consumed magic mushrooms two days prior to the flight.
The three plaintiffs behind the lawsuit are seeking a “clear and transparent public account” of pre-flight security screening procedures conducted by the airlines involved, with the intention of preventing similar acts of sabotage in the future.
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Daniel Laurence, an aviation attorney at The Stritmatter Firm, representing the plaintiffs, emphasized the need for airlines to enhance their security measures. He acknowledged that most pilots are dedicated professionals, but they are not immune to issues like sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, substance use, or mental health crises. Laurence firmly asserted that if proper screening procedures had been followed, Emerson would not have been permitted on the flight, and the passengers would have been spared the trauma they experienced. He noted that only sheer luck prevented the incident from escalating into a widespread disaster.