There’s a story that’s making the rounds that several people have asked me to write about, regarding an Alaska Airlines passenger who claims to have been discriminated against for being gay.
David Cooley is the founder of The Abbey in West Hollywood, which is a popular gay bar/club. Here’s his version of what happened on his Alaska Airlines flight from New York to Los Angeles, which he shared on his Facebook page:
I have never been so discriminated against while traveling before. I was removed from an Alaska Airlines flight # 1407 from John F. Kennedy International Airport to LAX to give preferential treatment to a straight couple. After my traveling companion and I had been seated in our assigned seats for a while, we were approached by the flight attendant and my companion was asked to move from his premium seat to coach, so a couple could sit together. I explained that we were a couple and wanted to sit together. He was given a choice to either give up the premium seat and move to coach or get off the plane. We could not bear the feeling of humiliation for an entire cross-country flight and left the plane. I cannot believe that an airline in this day and age would give a straight couple preferential treatment over a gay couple and go so far as to ask us to leave. We will never be flying Alaska Airlines or their recently purchased Virgin Airlines Group ever again. Thank you to Delta Air Lines for getting us home safe. If you are an #LGBT person, please spend your travel dollars with an LGBT friendly airline like Delta.
This of course sounds really bad, but I think there’s more to this story than meets the eye. There’s no denying that there’s a lot of discrimination out there, and it’s especially common in travel, given the number of different cultures that clash.
However, I don’t think that it’s automatically discrimination when a gay person has a bad customer service experience. Of course it sounds like it based on the way David’s account is shared, that they gave “preferential treatment to a straight couple,” and that his companion was asked to move so “a couple could sit together.”
Alaska Airlines claims that’s not quite what happened. Rather there were duplicate seat assignments for those seats:
When boarding flight 1407 from JFK to LAX, a couple was mistakenly assigned the same seats as another couple in Premium Class. We reseated one of the guests from Premium class in the main cabin. We are deeply sorry for the situation, and are investigating the details while communicating directly with the guests involved to try and make this right. Alaska Airlines has a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind, and our employees value inclusion for our guests and each other.
Don’t get me wrong, no matter what, duplicate seat assignments and having to reseat someone who is already seated is very bad customer service. Someone was going to be extremely unhappy regardless of the outcome.
In situations like these, airlines typically have policies in place regarding the order in which they’d reseat people. This could be based on status, or based on who paid for the seats, rather than who was upgraded. We don’t yet know whether the correct procedure was followed or not.
Based on what was shared so far, I don’t think we can conclude that the intent was to give preferential treatment to a straight couple. I don’t see any reason to conclude that this decision was based on an airline representative deciding it was more important for a straight couple to sit together than for a gay couple to sit together.
Both Alaska and Virgin America have a great record when it comes to equality. This flight was operated by former Virgin America employees, and Virgin America may just be the most gay-friendly airline on earth. I mean, look at this Tweet:
— Virgin America (@VirginAmerica) June 25, 2015
And have you seen their safety video?!
So we’ll have to wait and see what the investigation reveals, regarding whether the correct protocol was followed for reseating people in the event of seat duplicates. Based on what we know so far, though, I see no reason to conclude that the decision was based on feeling it’s more important for a straight couple to sit together than for a gay couple to sit together.
Regardless, a case of seat duplicates is always awful and will leave a sour taste in your mouth, whether straight, gay, or anywhere inbetween.