Vancouver airport says whistleblower complaint led to VP firing


The Vancouver Airport Authority says a whistleblower complaint led to the firing of a former high-ranking executive over the summer.

In court documents, the authority says Steve Hankinson – the former Vice President of Planning and Innovation – created a tense work environment by hiding a confidential project’s risks from executives and “avoiding taking into account serious safety hazards” about the project he was leading.

The extraordinary allegations are contained in a statement of defence filed the week before Christmas by the Airport Authority. The airport is defending itself in a lawsuit brought by Hankinson who alleges he was fired without just cause.

Hankinson said he found out about the whistleblower complaint from a lawyer investigating an “allegation of misconduct.”

“The plaintiff did deny, and continues to deny, any ‘misconduct’ at all on his part,” Hankinson said in his statement of claim, adding he was fired from his job on July 5, 2019. Including base pay, benefits and bonuses, he earned almost $495,000 in 2018, according to his lawsuit.

Hankinson said he was still unemployed when he filed his suit.

The airport argues in its defence that it had reason to fire Hankinson, alleging he hid “serious risks” from a steering committee overseeing an unnamed project and instructed other employees not to report risks and other key information to overseers.

“Hankinson’s misconduct … created a tense, stressful environment for the senior employees in his department; resulted in a fundamental breakdown of the trust and confidence VAA required of a senior executive,” the authority said in its defence, also alleging Hankinson gave false information to the authority’s Chief Financial Officer about a meeting he attended.

For the authority, it all added up to a breach of its core values and “revealed a character incompatible with continued employment given his senior position with VAA.”

It said Hankinson was already on notice after a 2015 allegation of misconduct led to a warning that future incidents would lead to his firing.

“Moreover, since Hankinson’s termination, additional information has come to light that establishes that Hankinson was engaging in similar patterns of behaviour contrary to VAA’s Core Values and Code of Ethics during the years preceding his termination,” the authority alleges.

Steve Hankinson (photo: Airports Council International).

Hankinson argues the investigation into the alleged misconduct was “conducted improperly and wholly flawed.” For instance, he says the investigator ignored a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis Hankinson suffered while he was a passenger on a flight.

“If [Hankinson] made any mistakes in performing his work during that period (which are not admitted herein, but specifically denied), then any such mistakes could have been the result of the PTSD,” Hankinson said in his statement of claim.

None of the assertions in either the statement of claim or statement of defence has been proven in court.

It is not clear what project Hankinson was working on at the heart of the whistleblower complaint. In May, less than two months before he was fired, Hankinson was quoted in a news release issued by the Vancouver Airport Authority announcing that it won a “Vision to Reality” award for border control machines developed by YVR’s Innovative Travel Solutions division.

“Technology plays a critical role in modernizing border management so that we can meet the needs of tomorrow’s traveller,” Hankinson was quoted as saying in the release. “At ITS, we have the experience needed to deliver a solution that is guaranteed to succeed – our technology is built by an airport, for airports. The recognition in receiving the Vision to Reality award further drives this home.”

It is unusual for disputes in Canada’s tight-knit aviation community, particularly between airports and high-ranking executives, to be made public and become matters for the courts to decide. No date has yet been announced for trial.