The Air Transportation Security Act (“ATSA”), passed in the aftermath of 9/11, includes an immunity provision that protects airlines from civil liability for reporting suspicious activities to the TSA. Air Wisconsin invoked ATSA immunity in defending a defamation lawsuit brought by a former employee, but was nevertheless hit with a $1.2 million judgment. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which reversed the judgment in an opinion that should provide comfort to airline employees who must decide whether to report a suspicious activity, often quickly and with incomplete information.
Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper stemmed from a report Air Wisconsin made to the TSA regarding one of its pilots. The pilot had become very angry after failing a proficiency test, and knew his termination was imminent. Air Wisconsin officials met to discuss the situation while the pilot was awaiting his flight home and expressed concerns due to the pilot’s anger, his knowledge that he would be fired, the possibility that he may be armed (he was a Federal Flight Deck Officer and was permitted to carry a gun under some circumstances), and recent episodes involving other disgruntled airline employees. Air Wisconsin contacted the TSA and reported its concerns about the pilot’s mental stability and the possibility he may be armed. The TSA removed the pilot from his flight, investigated, and ultimately let him board a flight home that same day.