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Ex-Virgin chief pilot details new bullying allegations

written by Hannah Dowling | July 27, 2022

Virgin Australia’s former chief pilot has claimed Jayne Hrdlicka blamed him for cost blowouts at the company and told him he was responsible for a breakdown in a pilot enterprise agreement.

Michael Fitzgerald made the new accusations as part of his ongoing unfair dismissal claim against the airline. He had earlier accused the Virgin chief executive of bullying, which caused mental health issues and a seven-month sick leave absence.

Virgin has told Australian Aviation it “unequivocally” denies the bullying allegations and said it would be “vigorously defending the matter”.

According to The Australian, in a recent document filed with the Federal Circuit Court in Brisbane, Fitzgerald outlined a number of allegations of bullying, specifically at the hands of Hrdlicka.

Fitzgerald said he believes he was blamed by management for its failure to agree on a new enterprise agreement with its pilots, which was overwhelmingly voted down by 90 per cent of participants.

“Specifically in a one-on-one meeting during February 2021, Ms Hrdlicka told [Fitzgerald] the failure of the vote was his fault because he didn’t get out and ‘rally the troops’ (notwithstanding COVID-19 lockdowns across Australia at the time),” the filing reads.

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He also claims to have been “further blamed by Ms Hrdlicka” for a $4m blowout in costs over the Christmas-New Year 2020/21 flight schedule “to which the CEO herself had directed additional flights.”

In an earlier response to the court case, a Virgin Australia spokesperson said Fitzgerald had only ever met with Hrdlicka on a one-on-one basis on two occasions, and that had largely been dealing directly with the airline’s chief operating officer Stuart Aggs, as opposed to Hrdlicka.

In a statement, a Virgin spokesperson said Fitzgerald was “treated fairly and was not bullied”.

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“He has now fabricated and misrepresented the details of interactions with two senior executives in court documents,” they said.

The matter will go to mediation on 15 November.

The case was sparked in April when Fitzgerald filed his application for wrongful termination after he took extended medical leave from his position for over seven months. The chief pilot claimed his absence was mental health-related and alleged that Hrdlicka had engaged in workplace bullying against him. Despite these claims, he is seeking to be reinstated at the airline.

According to court documents, Fitzgerald was forced to seek medical advice in July 2021, marking the beginning of his extended absence from his role.

Three months later, Fitzgerald claims he was informed by the airline’s chief operating officer Stuart Aggs that “the CEO had lost confidence” in him, and that “it would be better for everyone if he didn’t return to his role and moved on”.

According to Fitzgerald, within days he was sent ­redun­dancy options via text message. Two months later, he filed an “application for an order to stop bullying” with the Fair Work Commission.

Later, in February 2022, Virgin Australia filed a show-cause notice over alleged IT security breaches and at that time threatened Fitzgerald’s dismissal.

Fitzgerald claimed there were no security breaches and he merely sourced non-confidential emails relating to the Fair Work case, and also claims Virgin’s show-cause filing was another instance of being “bullied and threatened” by the airline. Fitzgerald was terminated on 1 March this year.

Virgin stated the December 2021 allegations of bullying made against the airline were “investigated by an external party” the following month, and found to be “not substantiated”.

Further, Virgin said that the chief pilot and general manager of flight operations role is “a critical senior regulatory role in Virgin Australia’s business and requires continuity and certainty of leadership”, however, had “supported Mr Fitzgerald for a period of paid absence from the business of more than seven months”.

“During that time, Virgin Australia discussed options for him to return to work. Mr Fitzgerald’s employment was only terminated following multiple independent assessments of his fitness to work,” a spokesperson said.

“We work hard to accommodate employees to manage physical and mental health challenges.

“Our sick leave programs for operational workgroups are regarded as very generous and where team members have exhausted their sick leave, we work with them individually to accommodate unique circumstances and we take advice from medical professionals on their ability to return to work.”

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