United Airlines agreed to allow an alcoholic Buddhist pilot back into the cockpit after a substance abuse program that doesn’t involve Christianity nearly two and a half years after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission backed the pilot, and pay him $305,000. The agency argued that the airline violated the pilot’s religious liberty by insisting he attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, contending he should be permitted to substitute a Buddhist alternative.
The United captain started in February 1985, months before the airline’s pilots went on strike. In 2018 he entered an alcohol treatment facility and lost his pilot’s license.
There’s a process to regain his license. This includes completing a substance abuse treatment program geared towards pilots. At United Airlines that includes attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and completing the first five steps of the 12-step program. However those steps include 2 references to a Christian God and acknowledgement that a “greater power exists.”
It’s important for pilots to have a ‘way back’ from alcohol treatment, or else there’s a strong incentive to hide alcohol dependency which isn’t what you want in the cockpit. As it is there’s tremendous shame and professional consequences. It’s a tough position, because you don’t want pilots flying without regard to alcohol rules and the question is the best way to get there.
According to United,
Safety is our top priority, and we have the highest confidence in the HIMS program, considered the gold standard within our industry for the monitoring of substance abuse.
Of course the issue here is that United is agreeing to deviate from its ‘gold standard’ program, which works for most of its pilots.
Those of us in a religious minority often find ourselves… in a religious minority. If returning to the cockpit were important enough, weighing competing values, the pilot might have sat silently while references to Christianity are offered. However I’m not sure that would be consistent with the airline’s current politics. It’s not consistent with an administrative agency’s view of the law. And United likely saw greater risk in continuing to defend against the suit.