WestJet's handling of sex assault claim left employees vulnerable, says fired flight attendant
Mandalena Lewis alleges she was sexually assaulted by a pilot while on a layover in Hawaii in 2010
The feelings never left her: fear, anger, betrayal. Mandalena (Mandy) Lewis says it's been an emotional roller coaster since she reported being sexually assaulted six years ago, and especially since she learned she might not be the only former WestJet flight attendant to have made such allegations.
They failed their flight attendants. They failed to protect us.- Mandalena Lewis, former WestJet flight attendant
"I'm just disappointed," she said in an interview with CBC News in Vancouver. "They failed their employees. They failed their flight attendants. They failed to protect us."
Lewis is suing her former employer, claiming that after she reported that she was sexually assaulted by a pilot on a layover in Hawaii in 2010, WestJet Airlines did not properly investigate the allegation and chose to protect the pilot and eventually fired her for pursuing the matter.
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"It was hell," she said in her first television interview. "It was real hell what I went through [to] try to seek justice and follow protocol on how to deal with this stuff."
'I was petrified'
Lewis claims she was assaulted during a Jan. 24, 2010, layover at the Makena Beach Resort in Maui. She says she accepted an invitation from the captain of her Vancouver-Maui flight to have drinks on the balcony of his hotel room. While she was there, he suddenly grabbed her and dragged her onto the bed and began groping her genitals, Lewis alleges.
"So, when we were at this point, of him on top of me on the bed and me screaming, him kissing my neck, my whole face being squished into the side of the bedding, I just ended up getting my feet under him, my heels, and I kicked, and then he fell backwards into the TV stand. I then got up and left," she said.
She has identified the pilot only as "Pilot M."
I was petrified. It's a moment where you realize how you think you fit in this world is not true.- Mandalena Lewis
"I was petrified," Lewis said. "It's a moment where you realize how you think you fit in this world is not true … that someone can treat you like you are a thing, like you're just a thing."
Upon returning to Vancouver, her home base, Lewis reported the alleged assault to her managers and to the RCMP, who contacted police in Maui. The U.S. federal prosecutor in Maui laid charges, but Lewis said she was told the pilot can only be arrested if he returns to the island.
CBC news has confirmed there are charges pending against the pilot but could not verify the exact charges.
None of the allegations contained in the lawsuit have been proven in court.
Lewis said that when she reported the alleged assault, she thought the pilot would be fired and that the company would alert other employees and review its sexual assault policies.
"I thought this was going to go completely different," she said.
Pilot, flight attendant grounded
Lewis's civil claim, filed in B.C. Supreme Court last week, alleges that WestJet failed to adequately investigate or respond to her initial report.
WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky said in a statement released last week that "investigations did take place on these matters, and they were subsequently closed."
We are reviewing the investigations to ensure they were diligently carried out.-Gregg Saretsky, WestJet CEO
"We are reviewing the investigations to ensure they were diligently carried out and no new information has come to light since the investigations were undertaken six years ago," he said in a statement posted on the company's blog.
A pilot and another flight attendant named in the lawsuit have been removed from active flying duty, but a WestJet spokesperson refused to say when the decision to ground the two staff members was made.
In his blog post, Saretsky said the decision to ground the two was made "out of concern for their well-being and the continued safe operation of the airline."
The Calgary-based airline also issued a statement last week stressing that it is committed to "maintaining a safe and harassment-free environment for its employees and guests and takes its obligation in this respect with the utmost seriousness."
On Monday, it reiterated that it is taking the allegations "extremely seriously."
"We are offering additional support and resources to make it as easy as possible for anyone affected to make a report by working with the police in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver and encouraging employees to contact these or their local police departments," said WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart in an email to CBC News.
Told to keep quiet
Lewis alleges in her lawsuit that the airline's only response to her allegation was to change her work schedule so that she did not have to work with the pilot.
She says the airline told her to keep quiet about her allegations out of respect for the pilot's privacy and told her the pilot was no longer allowed to fly to Hawaii — a move that Lewis says protects him from prosecution.
"They just said, 'We're really sorry. We don't have the capability to fire him. It's your word against him. We're really sorry, and we are going to try to deal with this the best way we can,'" Lewis said.
Lewis's fight might have ended there, but then last year, another flight attendant who had heard her pose a question about sexual harassment during a staff training session reached out to her and alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by the same pilot in 2008.
"I thought my incident was more or less isolated," Lewis said. "Once she told me this information, I knew right then and there … what they had told me was a lie. All of the emails and the fights that I was having with them about how they had dealt with my incident was just a lie.
"They didn't handle it at all. They kept telling me, 'Well, it was my word against his.' Well, you have another word from another woman, at the very least."
Fired in January
Lewis said she demanded to see her employment record to determine whether WestJet took any action following her complaint. In January, after three months passed without a response, Lewis sent an email to the company, which contained a swear word, asking for her record. She was fired later that same day for insubordination.
WestJet plans to file a statement of defence in the next few weeks. The company says it has not heard of any other complaints since Lewis filed her suit.
But CBC News has learned that seven other women have reported similar accounts of sexual assault, some involving the same pilot, to the WestJet Professional Flight Attendants Association, an employee organization that has been working to unionize flight attendants at the airline.
With files from Kazi Stastna and Jennifer Barr