The lawsuit claims Alaska Airlines is liable for its captain’s alleged drugging and raping of the co-pilot during a June layover in Minneapolis, and for its subsequent failure to hold him accountable.
It seemed like any other work stopover along Alaska Airlines’ service route: After arriving in Minneapolis, the captain and his co-pilot, Betty Pina, vanpooled to the flight crew’s designated hotel and met up later in the concierge room set up with snacks and drinks for airline employees.
Afterward, there was supposed to be a short overnight stay, before the two piloted a return flight to Seattle the next morning.
But things turned fuzzy for Pina before she made it back to her hotel room that evening, she said.
It started with a glass of wine, Pina said, delivered to her by the captain — a veteran Alaska pilot she’d never met before they were teamed for the three-day assignment last June. Pina commented that her drink tasted funny, then after only a few sips, she couldn’t keep her head up and felt the walls closing in.
“From there, I don’t remember leaving the concierge room, the elevator ride or walking down the hallway to my room, ” Pina recalled during a recent interview. “When I woke up, everything was hazy. I remember seeing a figure, somebody pulling at my right ankle, and rolling over and trying to say ‘No.’ And then, I was out again.”
The next time she came to, Pina said, she found herself naked from the waist down in a bed wet with vomit. She said she also heard the captain, who was in the same room, on the phone saying to an airline official that he’d been drinking.
Now, Pina, 39, a Seattle-area resident and decorated Army chopper pilot who has been flying commercial flights for Alaska since 2016, is suing the airline. Her suit claims Alaska Airlines is liable for its captain’s alleged drugging and raping of her that night, and for its subsequent failure to hold him accountable after she reported what happened to airline officials.
“I’m infuriated that he’s still working there,” Pina said of the accused captain, who she said remains on Alaska’s active seniority list for pilots.
In a statement early Wednesday, Alaska Airlines’ chief spokeswoman Bobbie Egan declined to comment about Pina’s allegations, citing the matter as “an open and active investigation.”
“What we can say is that we are taking this matter seriously,” Egan said. “The safety and well-being of our employees and guests is a top priority.”
Paul Engelien, the accused captain — a 50-year-old veteran pilot and married Nevada resident — did not respond to phone messages left for him Wednesday. He is named in Pina’s lawsuit, although not as a defendant. As is the airline’s policy, Engelien immediately was removed from flying in June, when an investigation was opened, Egan said. He remains employed and on paid-leave, she said.
The Seattle Times generally does not name victims of alleged sexual assault, but Pina agreed to be identified.
After word of Pina’s lawsuit emerged early Wednesday, an airline official contacted her and requested that she voluntarily withdraw from a scheduled work flight, according to her attorneys, Eric Makus and Lincoln Beauregard.
Egan said the airline contacted Pina intending only to check on her well-being.
“Betty will fly as scheduled,” said Makus, adding the official expressed a change in tone to Pina on Wednesday, offering “complete support” for her.
That’s not quite how the airline previously handled the matter, Pina and her lawyers said during an interview Tuesday.
After recounting how she found her underwear inside her zipped-up purse in Engelien’s room that night, Pina said she regretted not immediately calling 911.
“That’s when I knew I’d been assaulted,” she said.
Instead, in the first foggy hours after the incident, Pina said she felt sick and confused — and wracked by the fear of losing a 17-year career in aviation that she’d dreamed about while growing up in Kansas.
“I’m worried about everything I’ve ever worked for,” she said. “I’m not married, I don’t have kids. My career has been my number one.”
Pina said she’s since learned that on the night of the incident, a flight attendant reported to the first officer on duty that he had observed Engelien walking in a hotel hallway with two glasses of wine and a woman who appeared in danger.
“The crew member didn’t feel comfortable flying with (Engelien) the next day, so called the (first officer on duty),” Pina said.
That report triggered the duty officer’s subsequent calls to Engelien’s room, asking about his fitness for duty, her lawsuit contends.
After Engelien acknowledged drinking, the duty officer scratched the captain and Pina from piloting the return flight to Seattle, she said. The two instead were put in coach seating on a later flight bound for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Pina said.
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Before and during the flight, Pina said Engelien told her “that I’d been really drunk and had come on to him” the previous evening. She said he also tried to persuade her to “get our stories straight” to avoid putting their jobs at risk.
Back in Seattle, representatives for the pilots’ union and airline officials questioned both pilots, taking statements over the next two days, Pina said.
Pina said she initially didn’t feel comfortable reporting the rape but changed her mind after returning home after the airline’s interviews and finding “a handprint bruise” on her left thigh and other bruising.
Pina first reported the allegations to her union representative the night of June 7, two days after the alleged assault, and a day later to an Alaska human-resources official.
In early July, Pina said she detailed her allegations again to a lawyer, Marcella Reed, hired by the airline to investigate. The probe focused on whether Engelien and Pina potentially violated the company’s policy barring pilots from consuming alcohol within 10 hours before a scheduled flight, she said.
The airline had placed Pina on paid leave beginning in June, telling her not to talk about its investigation, she said. Meantime, Reed took various statements and purportedly informed Pina in August that a review of the hotel’s security video showed Engelien tried to forcibly kiss Pina in an elevator.
“She said I was incapacitated, that it took 18 to 20 minutes to get from the elevator to the room, and this whole time he’s trying to get me into the room, and I’m trying to put up whatever fight I can,” Pina said.
Finally in December, Pina said, Alaska’s Seattle base chief informed her that she’d soon be allowed to return to the cockpit. He also asked her: “Betty, let me ask you this, why didn’t you press charges?” Pina recalled.
“And until that moment, I thought telling my company and my supervisor is all I needed to do,” Pina said. “I was shocked when he said that.”
Pina was returned to active duty in January. She fears she may be forced to fly with Engelien again — despite the base chief’s promises that she won’t.
She and her attorneys served the airlines with a legal complaint detailing her allegations in mid-February, largely relying on official summaries of Pina’s formal statements to investigators. The airlines didn’t take any corrective action, the lawyers said, so they formally filed suit on Wednesday in King County Superior Court.
She is seeking unspecified damages.
“My hope is that by me doing this, it may protect other women,” Pina said. “How many other victims are out there? I may not be the first case, but I hope to be the last. It’s time to take responsibility. The culture needs to change. We can’t sweep this under the rug any longer.”
Pina said she’s open to pursuing a criminal case against Engelien.
“I wanted to get back in the cockpit flying before moving forward with anything,” she said. “Now that I have, I am.”