The Issue: A Blog, a Flight Attendant, and a Firing
The day Ellen Simonetti came home to her Austin (Tex.) condominium in September 2004 and checked her answering machine messages, she had no idea they'd change her life dramatically. Simonetti, a Delta (DAL) flight attendant for nearly eight years, was getting ready for one of her regularly assigned trips to Italy.
"They said: 'Please call. It's about your trip tomorrow,'" she recalls. Simonetti then phoned a Delta international in-flight supervisor to find out what the problem was. "She said, 'You can't fly to Rome tomorrow.' When I asked why, she said, ‘You don't know? It's about pictures on the Web,' And I felt like someone kicked me in the stomach."
The photographs, which launched a chain of events including Simonetti's dismissal, subsequent appearances on The Today Show and Montel Williams, and a lawsuit against Delta, appeared on the Journalspace.com blog she created in January 2004.
"I had just lost my mother in September of 2003," Simonetti explains. "It really hit me hard, and I didn't know how to deal with it. So I heard about blogging and started to write about being a flight attendant and the pain I was feeling. It was like therapy to me."
In the blog, first titled "Diary of a Flight Attendant" and later "Diary of a Dysfunctional Flight Attendant" (and ultimately "Diary of a Grounded Flight Attendant" and "Diary of a Human Being"), Simonetti referred to herself as "Queen of Sky" (and a few times just as "Ellen") and mostly in the third person. The journal captured mundane events from her day-to-day life such as:
Well, Queen of Sky is just having a BAD morning. The flight from Lima went O.K., but there was a ground delay in Lima because the captain decided to change his routing at the last minute. So they took off over half an hour late, around 1 a.m.
Well, Queen of Sky is going to relax now and maybe have a foot massage and then have lunch before napping before the all-night flight back to Bustling Base City. Some of the crew were going to the tailor today. Queen of Sky once again forgot to bring the things she needs altered.
Although Simonetti never gave her last name or mentioned her employer's name (she referred to it as Anonymous International Airline) in the blog, she was wearing a Delta uniform in the photographs, which show her relaxing on a jet on the ground in between flights. Except for one slightly racy shot that depicts her leaning over her seat with a patch of her brassiere showing, the pictures are pretty much G-rated.
Simonetti says she and another Delta flight attendant took the pictures just for fun. One of them showed her friend posing inside an overhead cabinet. "We were on the ground when the pictures were taken," she says. "We don't get paid until the door shuts and the plane pushes back. So I wasn't on the clock when this happened. There was no policy against taking pictures in uniform on a plane, and I still don't know of any policies against posting pictures on the Web."
Nonetheless, her superiors were not amused, and even though Simonetti removed the pictures from her blog right after the initial phone call, the airline sent her supervisor and a human resources representative to speak to her, and suspended her without pay a week after the meeting.
"I brought a friend with me to the meeting, but they said, 'No, he can't come with you. This is between Delta people.' They asked, 'Do you have a Web site?' and 'Do you post pictures of yourself on the Web site?' and what the name of my Web site was," Simonetti says. She was also told the photographs were inappropriate. "They basically interrogated me and forced me to write up statements. They made me feel like a criminal. I asked what they meant by 'inappropriate' pictures. They said they'd get back to me."
Terminated for Inappropriate Behavior
During a phone call three weeks after the meeting, a Delta representative told her the carrier was terminating her employment "based on inappropriate photographs in the Delta uniform on the Web site." According to Simonetti, Delta never explained what made the photos unacceptable or where in the employee manual it said that posting pictures in a Delta uniform was forbidden.
Simonetti never learned how Delta stumbled upon her blog in the first place. "By the time I was suspended, I was only getting 150 to 200 visitors a day," she says. "I felt very comfortable with the blog, because 'nobody read it.' But when people would Google 'flight attendant,' I guess it would come up."
In between the suspension and dismissal, Simonetti filed a sex discrimination claim with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, which provided a "right to sue letter" she could use in a lawsuit later. "I found pictures of male Delta flight attendants and pilots on Match.com in their uniforms with their ‘turn-ons and turn offs' listed. And some of them even mentioned they worked for Delta," she says. Yet the airline apparently took no action against them. Because Delta flight attendants don't have a union, she hired a private lawyer in an attempt to get her job back.
Simonetti's suit against Delta is pending, and she was never able to get another job in the airline industry, despite the media attention she received after the firing. (Her appearances on TV and mentions of her in articles were usually sympathetic to her predicament.) She now works selling real estate and is back in school, studying radio, TV, and film at the University of Texas at Austin. However, she says she still misses her flight attendant job and her old co-workers and is upset about the blog episode.
The question remains: Did Delta take gratuitously drastic measures over a bunch of silly pictures on the Web or was Simonetti guilty of irresponsible behavior that could have harmed the carrier?
While she may have erred in judgment with her blog, a flight attendant didn't deserve the turbulence that ensued
It's been four years since Delta fired flight attendant Ellen Simonetti for posting pictures of herself in uniform on a company jet between flights. The carrier had somehow discovered the photos on her blog, Diary of a Dysfunctional Flight Attendant, and dismissed her a few weeks later.
For Simonetti, it was a personal disaster that left her saddened, confused, and jobless. In an e-mail response to BusinessWeek.com's request, Delta, citing its former employee's pending litigation against it, declined to comment on the case. Industry experts we spoke to seemed to share the same opinion about the whole chain of events: Simonetti should have known better than to depict herself goofing around in her uniform—a symbol of the airline's integrity—but firing her because of it represented a bigger error in judgment on Delta's part.
"Airlines do have standards. An airline pilot in uniform can't drink at a bar even off-duty," says Scott Hamilton, a consultant to the airline industry who's based in Issaquah, Wash. "Was it a dumb thing for her to appear in a flight attendant's uniform? Yes. Was it a firing situation? No."
Both Hamilton and Bob Mann, who is president of airline consulting business R.W. Mann & Co., thought the firing sounded more like the culmination of prior disciplinary warnings rather than a reaction to one incident. "It seems like an overly aggressive response to a single event," says Mann, who is based in Port Washington, N.Y. "It leads me to believe there may have been prior warnings to get [the photos] off the blog." Simonetti, however, maintains she had a solid record with no disciplinary actions during her eight years of employment with Delta, and that she removed the photos as soon as she learned the airline disapproved of them.
One reason the problem may have occurred was that blogs were still in their infancy back in 2004. "Companies had policies for e-mail and corporate uniforms and speaking to the press at the time this happened," says Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Assn., based in New Rochelle, N.Y. "I'm not aware there were any or many corporate policies about blogging."
"Blogging is a new medium, and lot of people probably jumped into it without thinking it through," says Dave Heller, an attorney with the Media Law Resource Center in New York. "I think it would be best to enforce these things after a policy has been set up." (Heller suggests that people thinking of starting a Web journal check out guidelines for blogging that were formulated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco group dedicated to protecting free speech in the media.)
For Simonetti and Delta, the blog-photos incident caused stress and litigation. Many observers feel the firing scandal embarrassed the airline more than the photos did. Most of the media attention surrounding the case was sympathetic toward Simonetti. But what about any fliers who may have seen the pictures in question?
"Airline passengers are not going to care one bit," says Kate Hanni, president of the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. "They have seen such a decline in service. They are far more concerned with surviving a flight than a flight attendant's semi-sexy picture on a blog."
Likewise, Joe Brancatelli, the Cold Spring (N.Y.)-based editor of joesentme.com, a non-commercial Web site for business travelers, believes business fliers don't care what flight attendants do in their time off. "But Delta is a strange company; it always has been," he says. "It's old. It's the only non-union airline out there."