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12 Nov 2018

A pilot sacked for being scared of flying

A pilot sacked for being scared of flying has won an unfair dismissal claim after a tribunal heard he was told to do a crossword when he raised concern about his phobia.

First officer Matthew Guest has been working for Flybe for almost a decade but became anxious and had "panic attacks" after being promoted to longer flights, a tribunal heard.

On one occasion Mr Guest twice raised concerns with a boss about a four hour flight but was told to do a crossword or read a book whilst the plane was cruising. He called in sick the next day and has not flown since.

An employment judge has now ruled he should have been offered alternative roles or at least an opportunity to discuss his case with group chief operating officer Luke Farajallah. 

The father of two is now asking to be re-employed by the budget airline as his remedy for unfair dismissal. Unless the parties agree the matter will be decided by a judge later this month.

Mr Guest's  problems began in December 2014 after when he was moved onto the Flybe's Embraer jets, or Ejets, based at Birmingham West Midlands Airport.

Like the Q400 which he had worked on for seven years since joining in August 2007, it is crewed by a Captain and a First Officer, but flights are of longer duration.

He was said to be delighted by the opportunity buy during a flight to Florence he had "an unsettling experience" in which he suddenly felt sick and dizzy, the Birmingham hearing was told.

Later that month he had a feeling of impending doom or dread and a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach as he drove to the airport.

Judge Tom Coghlin QC said in a written ruling: "He later described this as feeling like severe butterflies or stomach cramp. He called in sick and returned home."

Over the following months Mr Guest, who said his home life was not easy as he had a toddler and a three-month-old baby, continued to suffer anxiety and his GP wrote to his bosses saying he had "developed an increasing phobia and anxiety about long-distance flights and being trapped on the aeroplane."

His medical certificate, which is required to fly a commercial aircraft, was temporarily suspended due to "panic attacks".

Over the next two months he underwent cognitive behavioural therapy sessions and his medical certificate was reinstated by the CAA on 27 April 2015.

But he continued to struggle and was eventually signed off with anxiety and began a second period of absence during which he attended CBT sessions, hypnotherapy and acupuncture and was prescribed an antidepressant permissible for pilots.

Mr Guest returned to work on 26 April 2016 and after one flight he completed a note saying: "Fine. Elated when I got home 'I'm cured!'"

But subsequent flights were more mixed and things came to a head on 17 June 2016 when the claimant learned that he was due to undertake a four hour flight to Kefalonia in Greece.

Judge Coghlin noted that after Mr Guest twice raised concerns with head of pilot management Lee Goreham his boss "in what I think was an effort to be supportive, suggested that during the cruise phase of the journey the claimant might pass the time by reading a book or doing a crossword (as pilots frequently do)".

Mr Guest agreed to take on the flight but called in sick the next day, after which his roster was cleared completely.

The company sacked him in March 2017 saying that it "remains concerned regarding your fitness to safely fly. Due to the uncertainty of your condition we cannot as an organisation accept the risk to safety.

"The medical advice containing the suggestion that your condition could return causes the Company serious concerns and Flybe are not prepared to take risks in the flight deck with people's lives."

The hearing was told the claimant was offered a ground based role as Flight Safety Support Officer but he was told that there would be no possibility of returning to flying if he accepted it.

The judge said that Mr Guest had never been given the opportunity to meet Mr Farajallah, who made the decision to sack him.

He noted: "It is a basic principle of natural justice and of fairness that an employee should have the chance to address the relevant decision-maker. Here, the claimant had no such opportunity."

The judge added that Mr Guest could have returned to flying the Q400, which he had flown safely and without difficulty for years, or been allowed to fly for a time with a supernumerary pilot.

Upholding his claim, he said that had Flybe followed the correct procedure there was a two thirds chance they would have sacked him fairly.

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