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Flight attendants complained about ‘menacing’ images on aircraft

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(CNN) — Thirteen former United Airlines flight attendants say they were fired for refusing to work a commercial flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong after the airline discovered “threatening” words and “menacing” images drawn on the tail cone of the Boeing 747.

The aircraft was being prepared for takeoff when flight attendants became aware oil from the aircraft’s auxiliary engine was used to paint the words “BYE BYE” in 6-inch-high letters above two faces, “one smiling and the other with a more troubling devilish expression,” according to a federal complaint filed Wednesday with the Department of Labor.

The flight attendants say that on July 14, United Airlines ignored a “serious and credible threat to the security and safety of passengers by ordering them to fly in order to avoid cost and disruption to the airline’s flight schedule and revenue,” said David Marshall, the attorney representing the group.

Also in the federal complaint, the flight attendants allege they informed the airline they were “uncomfortable flying unless United took steps to address this security threat, including deplaning 300-plus passengers and conducting a thorough security inspection of the aircraft.”

Marshall said they wanted to “ensure that no explosive device had been planted in the plane.”

United tells CNN the incident was investigated by its flight operations and safety teams.

“There was no credible security threat,” the airline said in a statement. “All of FAA’s and United’s own safety procedures were followed, including a comprehensive safety sweep prior to boarding, and the pilots, mechanics and safety leaders deemed the aircraft entirely safe to fly.”

The airline said the pilots were willing to fly the plane.

The flight attendants said in the “wake of the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370 and a warning issued by TSA about consumer electronic device bombs just a week earlier,” they had a “heightened duty and legal responsibility” to do whatever was necessary to make sure everyone onboard was safe.

Grace Lam, one of the terminated flight attendants said, “given the gravity of the risks involved — the lives of passengers and crew alike–we were not willing to bow to United’s pressure to ignore an unresolved security threat.”

The flight attendants were fired in October for insubordination. The federal complaint accuses United of bullying and retaliatory firings. The flight attendants want their jobs back, back pay and compensatory damages.