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October 21, 2017

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Charter airline’s suit over war zone hazard pay gets class-action status

Class-action status has been granted in a lawsuit claiming crew members of a North Las Vegas charter airline didn't receive extra hazard pay for flying dangerous missions into Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt last week approved the notice of the class-action to be published and to be sent to Vision Airlines Inc. employees who were crew members on flights to or from Iraq or Afghanistan from May 1, 2005, to the present.

The notice summarizes the allegations in the case, notes Vision has denied the allegations and says affected current and former employees need to do nothing, unless they want to opt out of the lawsuit.

Class-action certification represents a victory for former Vision pilot Gerald Hester and other plaintiffs, who allege Vision as a U.S. government contractor collected $21 million in hazard pay on behalf of at least 300 employees who operated the "Air Bridge Program" into war zones -- but didn't turn over all of the funds to the employees and kept some of the extra money for itself.

The suit asserted the hazard pay due to charter crews flying to and from Iraq is $2,500 for each captain, first officer and international relief officer for each take-off and landing. Other crew members such as flight attendants and mechanics are to receive $1,500 each for each take-off and landing, the lawsuit says.

The Air Bridge is a system in which military and civilian government personnel and contractors are flown in and out of the war zones.

Vision had fought class-action certification, arguing crew members worked under different contracts depending on their job classification as pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, ground crew and administrative personnel.

Vision said some of these workers didn't qualify for hazard pay.

But Hunt found that Hester's attorneys showed the plaintiffs are pursing common questions of law or facts.

The judge also ruled attorneys for Hester satisfied the class-action requirements by showing at least 100 people served as crew members on the flights, the crew members live in 23 states and that it would be impractical to have that many people in so many locations serve as individual plaintiffs in lawsuits.

"The interests of judicial economy strongly favor certifying this action because it would be both inefficient and expensive to litigate multiple cases involving the same set of facts in many different jurisdictions," Hunt wrote in his ruling.

The parties in the case are now proceeding with fact-finding discovery and the lawsuit is likely to continue for some time. Vision may have opportunities to seek dismissal of the case on motions for summary judgment with no trial; or the case could proceed toward a trial or settlement.

Vision, in the meantime, is pursuing in federal court a counterclaim against Hester.

The counterclaim alleges he violated his employment and confidentiality agreements by contacting air bridge companies Vision contracts with -- Capital Aviation Inc., Computer Sciences Corp. and McNeil Technologies Inc. -- and disclosing Vision trade secrets in an attempt to convince those firms to enter into new contracts with Hester or others associated with Hester and to terminate their deals with Vision.

Vision also claims Hester violated his nondisclosure agreement by revealing that "to reduce the likelihood of rocket and missile attacks, aircraft arriving and departing Baghdad International Airport must observe blackout procedures which require all exterior and interior aircraft lighting (except for cockpit instruments) to be turned off."

Vision says Hester also violated the agreement by revealing "aircraft arriving and departing Baghdad must utilize a dangerous corkscrew procedure, which requires the airplane to fly in a spiral directly above the airport in order to stay within the areas most heavily fortified by the United States military."

Those details were alleged in the January 2009 lawsuit filed on behalf of Hester, of Colleyville, Texas.

Attorneys for Hester have denied he violated his employment and confidentiality agreements, arguing details about the air bridge program, blackout flying conditions and spiral-type landings are public record, having been reported in publications including Army Times.

And Hester's attorneys noted in court papers that then-Sen. Hillary Clinton told Fox News in January 2007: "when you fly into a war zone like Baghdad, and I've done it numerous times now, there and elsewhere, you know, the C-130 does a kind of corkscrew landing."

Another lawsuit filed by Vision alleging conspiracy and racketeering is pending in Clark County District Court against former employees including former pilot Juan Salicrup Mayoral, former flight attendant Ronald Borz, former accounting assistant Gwen Carson and former pilot Daniel Carson.

Also sued were Mayoral's wife, Heleni Salicrup, and two companies Vision alleged the two control: Salko Enterprises Inc. and Salko International.

Vision charged the defendants have tried to undermine its business, misappropriated trade secrets and violated non-compete and non-disclosure agreements.

The defendants are accused of releasing confidential information and trade secrets to attempt to convince Vision customers and companies it does business with to enter into new contracts with the defendants and terminate their contracts with Vision.

The defendants in that suit have denied the allegations and are seeking its dismissal.

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