Ethics: Whistleblower

Sadly, traffic accidents happen – on land, at sea and in the air. But why do they occur? Do two minutes of brainstorming with a partner.


Flying is about the safest means of transportation there is. Accidents are few and far between. But when they do happen, they mean tragedy for lots of people. The article 'Whistleblower' does not intend to make you afraid of flying, but addresses the importance of security, maintenance and responsibility.
Before reading the article, acquaint yourself with the following words:
aircraft, destination, maintenance, emergency, recovery, investigation, complaint


On January 31, 2000 Alaska Airlines flight 261 crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, killing all 88 passengers and crew.

Shortly after takeoff in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the pilots noticed it was difficult to keep the aircraft level in the air. The plane was bound for Seattle, Washington. While the pilots were struggling more and more, they made radio contact with Alaska Airlines’ maintenance center in Seattle, in an attempt to find the cause of the problem. They decided to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles. Suddenly there was a loud noise from the rear of the aircraft, the plane went into an uncontrolled spiral dive, from which recovery was impossible. The plane hit the water at 4:21 p.m.

The crash investigation soon ruled out human error as the cause of the accident. Focus was instead directed towards the tail section of the plane. It was discovered that a two-foot long jackscrew was destroyed. The jackscrew helps adjust the horizontal stabilizer, which controls the pitch, or up-and-down orientation, of the aircraft. The jackscrew showed clear signs of lack of maintenance, in that its threads had been torn off.

More than two years before the accident, Alaska Airlines mechanic John Liotine had asked for the jackscrew to be replaced. He suspected that the airline company was violating regulations on maintenance schedules and flight hours. When his decision was overturned by the company, he filed a formal complaint at the Federal Aviation Administration. His complaint prompted a federal grand jury investigation into Alaska's maintenance practices. Only months before the crash, John Liotine was placed on paid administrative leave. When interviewed by a Seattle newspaper, he said that he was sure blowing the whistle on the company would cost him his job.

In December 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board attributed the crash of Flight 261 to lack of grease on the jackscrew. Insufficient lubrication led to excessive wear on the nut threads, causing the plane's stabilizer to break off during flight. The board blamed both the airline for its negligent maintenance practices and the Federal Aviation Administration for its failure to adequately oversee the aircraft. Another contributing factor, the board concluded, was the lack of a fail-safe mechanism to protect the aircraft from a catastrophic loss of the jackscrew.

Partly as a result of mechanic John Liotine’s complaint, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Northern California investigated claims of fraudulent record-keeping and cover-up at an Alaskan Airlines maintenance center in Oakland, where Flight 261 was last serviced. In August 2003 the U.S. Attorney's Office announced that it would not file any criminal charges.



1 Understanding the article

Choose the alternative you believe is correct.
a) Where was Flight 261 bound for?
   - Seattle
   - Mexico
   - Los Angeles

b) What problem did the pilots notice after takeoff?
   - irregularities with the instrument panels
   - fuel shortage
   - pitch problems

c) What was the cause of the accident?
   - human error on the part of the pilots
   - mechanical breakdown
   - extreme weather conditions

d) What did aviation mechanic John Liotine do before the crash?
   - replaced the worn jackscrew
   - ordered jackscrew replacement, but accepted the company’s decision not to do so
   - filed a complaint about the company due to its maintenance practices

e) What did the company do to Liotine?
   - gave him a bonus for being so conscientious (samvittighetsfull)
   - suspended him from work
   - promoted him to a job within the administration

f) What other cause did the National Transportation Safety Board attribute the crash to?
   - lack of a fail-safe mechanism in the plane
   - insufficient emergency training on the part of the pilots
   - wrong troubleshooting procedures

g) What was the decision of the U.S. Attorney's Office for Northern California?
   - to file criminal charges against Alaska Airlines
   - to acquit (frikjenne) Alaska Airlines of any wrongdoing
   - not to press charges against Alaska Airlines

2 Vocabulary

Match the following adjectives with their correct definitions.

insufficient  careless
excessive  deceitful; done by lying for the purpose of gain
adequate   too much
fraudulent    not enough
negligent  enough for the purpose

3 Talking

Why do you think this article is entitled “Whistleblower”? Study again what the article tells you about aviation mechanic John Liotine. What did he do and what were the consequences of his actions? What would you have done in his position?


4 Writing

You have witnessed one of your colleagues stealing from your company. What action do you take – if any? Consider these three alternatives:
   a) You ignore it, trusting somebody else will take care of the problem.
   b) You take your colleague aside, telling him what you’ve seen.
   c) Without telling him, you report him to the manager.

Write a text where you briefly discuss each alternative and its possible consequences. In the end, decide which alternative you would choose and why. Here is how you can start:

If I witnessed one of my colleagues stealing from our company, there would be several things I could do. Obviously I’d want the stealing to stop, but no matter what I chose to do, there could be unpleasant - maybe even tragic –- consequences. In the following I’ll discuss three different alternatives.

Now you continue!