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Southwest responds to passenger accusations of homophobia
Southwest responds to passenger accusations of homophobia
by Nick Ardizzone - SGN Staff Writer

The December 14 issue of Seattle Gay News carried the story Homophobia at 30,000 feet: A Gay man's ordeal on Southwest Airlines, which detailed the indignities suffered by Kelly Brown (Associate Editor of Spokane's Stonewall News, a paper unaffiliated with the SGN) while traveling on Southwest Airlines with his partner, Fred Swink (Publisher of the Stonewall News). Brown related to the SGN how he was mistreated by a flight attendant who disrupted the couple's seating arrangement and called him "fag" and "garbage" before reporting him to airport security for threatening the cabin crew - an accusation Brown insists is false and was only brought against him because he is Gay. The SGN's call to Southwest's Media Relations department was not returned by last week's press time, and Brown's complaint to Southwest's Public Relations department went unanswered.

At 3:30 p.m. on December 17, Brown was contacted by Paula Berg, Southwest's Public Relations Manager. Berg had been alerted to the SGN article by Southwest's New Media Team and had called Brown in order to "reach out" to him. "I explained to her what had happened to me on the flight, and she appeared to be very concerned," Brown told the SGN, who was in contact with him throughout the week. "Ms. Berg stated that 'Southwest will do what it takes to make things right for you.'" Southwest policy dictates the flight attendant with whom Brown had his dispute would have to fill out a report explaining her side of the incident. Berg called Brown at 10:00 a.m. the following day and told him she had been unable to reach the flight attendant as she had been out on flights. "[Berg] said she was going to make this the top priority and get back to me as soon as possible," Brown recalled.

The next message Brown received from Berg was an automated e-mail response wishing him a happy new year. Paula Berg had gone on vacation.

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES "GATHERS THE FACTS" On Wednesday, the SGN was contacted by Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Marilee McInnis, who called from her cell phone while she drove through Texas. Although she occasionally lost her connection, she was able to address some of the details of Brown's alleged mistreatment.

McInnis, who had never spoken with Brown but had been briefed on his story, was sympathetic. "At Southwest, we have such an open and diverse culture ... the very foundation of our culture is open and accepting. When you hear about something like this, it obviously affects all of us, and we want to make sure that we can get all the information we can."

McInnis outlined the action Southwest was taking in response to Brown's claim. "We are requesting reports from the employees involved and doing what we can to get to the bottom of the story," she said. "Flight attendants, by the nature of their job, are flying a lot, so sometimes it takes a little while to gather these reports."

McInnis agreed that the emotional nature of Brown's story demanded a strong, timely response from Southwest - be it a confirmation or a denial - but said that the gathering of information could not be hurried. "We don't want to jump to conclusions. We want to make sure we have all the facts before making any sort of determination, and so to get all the facts, it's going to take, unfortunately, as long as it takes."

When asked whether she or Berg had spoken to the flight attendant involved in the incident, McInnis said she had not. "We do not talk to - we request reports from the flight attendants, so we don't talk to them directly. We request written reports ... Paula was not talking to her directly; she was requesting reports from our in-flight department."

Was there a report available that had been filed by the police who detained Brown in the concourse? "Not to my knowledge," McInnis said. "When we're requesting reports we might find out from our employees, kind of, you know - they may have talked to each other, but there was not an official report filed."

McInnis stressed that Southwest valued a comprehensive approach over a hasty reaction. "Obviously, it's a very serious situation and a very serious accusation and we want to make sure that we have all the information and can make it right with Mr. Brown," she said. "It may be a week since the incident occurred, and all of our apologies to Mr. Brown, but again, this came to our attention two days ago [Monday]."

Although Brown registered his complaint on December 14 - five days prior to this discussion - McInnis was unaware of any attempt to contact Southwest. "We checked with our customer relations department and we did not have record of a call or a letter from him," she said, but wanted to emphasize that Southwest did not place any of the blame on Brown.

"Mr. Brown has been a loyal customer of ours for 30 years and we don't want that to change. It is in our best interest as a company, it's in our best interest as employees of Southwest to make sure that we do the best we can to make this right with Mr. Brown. That's what we're doing by gathering all the facts." McInnis promised that she would be able to give the SGN a full report on the incident the next day.

"We don't want anyone to have a bad experience on Southwest, so regardless of what the facts turn out to be, we certainly apologize for the fact that he, in his perception, had a horrible experience on Southwest," McInnis said carefully. "Absolutely he has received an apology for what, you know, he feels occurred."

Brown's contact with the SGN that afternoon was succinct. "I have NOT received any sort of apology from Southwest at this time," he wrote. "Paula Berg has termed the incident 'unfortunate,' but that is as far as it has gone."

FLIGHT ATTENDANT REPORT "SOMEWHAT CONTRADICTORY" At 1:00 p.m. on December 20, the SGN reached Marilee McInnis on her car phone. True to her word, Southwest had received the reports from the crewmembers on board Brown's flight and although she had not read them, she had been briefed. "I heard from our Director of Customer Advocacy and Communication that they received the statements from the flight attendants on board the flight and they were somewhat contradictory to the description Mr. Brown had given regarding his behavior as well as our flight attendant's behavior and actions," she said, but acknowledged that "these are all situations involving human emotion and perception, and the truth is probably somewhere in between."

"I haven't seen them, and those reports are internal documents," McInnis explained, but offered to briefly answer questions about the incident to the best of her recollection.

When the flight attendant insisted the couple separate to accommodate a boarding family, "that had absolutely nothing to do with their being a Gay couple," McInnis said. "In this case, there just happened to be a seat available near them and so that was the best situation and resolution for the family."

"They were not targeted," she stressed.

McInnis addressed the accusations of derogatory language simply: "According to the statements by the flight attendants, no, they did not use derogatory language towards Mr. Brown," she said, and in fact, "We have no indication that this flight attendant has ever used that type of language or ever made that type of reference to anyone in her career with Southwest."

When asked about why the flight attendant reported Brown to the airport police, McInnis said, "I do not know if threats were made by Mr. Brown to the flight attendants ... he was angry on board the aircraft and his behavior caused them concern regarding how he would behave on his next flight."

The flight attendant's report seemed to leave little room for Brown's account of his experience, which left him feeling attacked, humiliated, and discriminated against. There was no apparent compromise between the two versions of the flight. Even so, McInnis said that the staff had been alerted to Brown's concerns.

"What generally happens in situations like this is that the flight attendants are made aware of the customer's complaint," she said. "It's addressed with them so they understand the perception the customer had of their behavior, and so hopefully they will make steps to change that." Would disciplinary action be taken if the flight attendant doesn't make those necessary steps? "I couldn't speak to that. I can tell you that Southwest Airlines does not condone or accept any type of discrimination for any reason, but especially on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. We do not tolerate our employees behaving rudely to our customers ... Our leadership has been made fully aware of the perception that Mr. Brown had of [the flight attendant's] service and attitude, so it's being addressed all the way up the ladder."

"Of course, if there's a pattern of a certain type of behavior then absolutely it would be dealt with," she stated.

When pressed for further information, McInnis drew the line. "To be quite honest, there are not any more details we can provide to you in terms of reports and that sort of thing. I think you've got as complete a story as you can get."

"We absolutely do not dispute that Mr. Brown had a bad experience on Southwest," McInnis said. "We definitely apologize for that ... I know that our Director of Customer Advocacy, Lisa Anderson, did refund his and his traveling companion's flight as an apology for what was a very unpleasant flight in Mr. Brown's perception."

Wasn't Brown in contact with Southwest's Public Relations Manager, Paula Berg? "Paula is on vacation," McInnis said. "It's the holidays."

"I've got to be really honest with you. We hate this, that now we've appeared unresponsive to you and that Mr. Brown feels we've been unresponsive to him, but we've done our best in terms of as soon as we found out about it on Monday to actually expedite the conclusion of this because we knew that there were such hard feelings and such severity to his complaint, that we just can't let that rest."

McInnis then addressed the problem with Brown's complaint. "We do not know what happened to the message. None of us received it. Unfortunately, the message that he left apparently either did not take or was not passed on." McInnis thought for a moment, then speculated that Brown had submitted his complaint to the Public Relations department - a completely separate entity from the Customer Relations department. "I'm certain he did leave a message, unfortunately we did not receive it," McInnis said after a few moments. "He did not direct his complaint to the proper channels, which was our Customer Relations department." Both numbers are on the "Contact Us" page of Southwest's website (www.southwest.com).

McInnis was apologetic about Brown's complaint mixup, but stressed that the details of the incident weren't as important as customer satisfaction. "We want to make sure you understand that we refunded their tickets because, regardless of the specifics to this incident, he did not have a good flight on Southwest ... he'd been a loyal customer of ours for 30 years and we certainly don't want that to be his last impression of Southwest, so that is why our director chose to refund his flight."

Did Brown seem pleased with the resolution? "It is my understanding that yes, they had a good conversation and that things seemed to have been resolved to his satisfaction."

"IN A SITUATION LIKE THIS, IT'S THE PASSENGER'S WORD AGAINST HERS" "I received an apology, it was not to my satisfaction," Brown began. He had spoken to Lisa Anderson earlier in the day and received his refund. "It was one of those things, we sincerely apologize that you were inconvenienced, but Southwest is very pro-Gay, we contribute to pride and blah blah blah ... she did not address the issues that were of concern to me."

"I felt that it was the minimal acceptable action that she could take," he said. "It's more like a PR thing and if they give me my ticket money back, they hope I shut up and don't cause further problems for them."

Though disappointed by Southwest's handling of the situation, Brown expected no better. "In a situation like this, it's the passenger's word against hers ... it doesn't surprise me that the flight attendant would make the kind of response you received. There is absolutely no other response she could make that would justify her behavior."

Brown remains very concerned that the flight attendant will receive no disciplinary action for filing a false police report against him. "I think she realized that she had gone over the line and that unless she got in a little preemptive strike, I would probably file a complaint with management about her behavior." Brown was detained by airport police before he could speak to the Southwest supervisor.

"When you're a passenger on an airplane after 9/11, it doesn't matter what you say or do; if the flight attendant files a complaint against you, you've got hell to pay even if that complaint is totally unfounded. There is no check or balance, and that is a power that can very easily be abused."

"I feel that had Seattle Gay News not gotten involved, [Southwest] wouldn't even have returned my call. I feel that there are some significant issues with those folks. I think that what happened to me, it was not an isolated incident."

When told that McInnis reported no complaints had been filed against the flight attendant before, Brown scoffed. "I find that very hard to believe ... I think she's a bully who knows how to work the system. I think she's decidedly homophobic. And I think she has some strong personal issues that she had before she ever met me on that flight."

Brown might not be alone in his opinion. Since his interview with the SGN, he "found out that Fred [Swink] was seated two rows or so behind me." Immediately after the incident where the flight attendant called Brown "garbage," the man seated behind Brown "made a comment to Fred ... he said it was very obvious that she had some sort of personal animosity toward me."

When pressed for the man's exact words, Brown replied, "I believe it was, 'God, isn't she a bitch.'"

Brown was resentful about his treatment from Southwest concerning the apology he eventually received. Having heard nothing from Southwest between the time his e-mail to Berg was returned and when Anderson contacted him, he was left in the lurch. "It was not clear to me if [Anderson] had been working in tandem with Paula Berg. It seemed kind of odd to me to have so many different Southwest people involved with this," he said. "It doesn't appear the left hand knew what the right hand was doing."

Due to Southwest's handling of his situation, Brown has changed his mind about what was his carrier of choice for the last 25 years. "I feel very strongly that there are some serious 'issues' at Southwest Airlines. Despite what they have said and done, there is no way I would ever fly with them again," he says. "I don't feel safe flying with them anymore."

Brown has taken Southwest's treatment of his situation as a dismissal, saying that the refunded tickets showed how little Southwest understood about the issue. "Gay and Lesbian passengers are entitled to be treated with the same level of service and the same level of courtesy as any other passenger ... this could have been handled very differently by the corporate office. The token refund of tickets, considering what I had to go through, is really the most minimal type of response they could make."

"The case is not over for me," says Brown, who plans on pursuing a formal discrimination suit against Southwest. "I'm not a Gay activist. This is the first time in my life I've ever been involved in any sort of political controversy... but I guess I had my Rosa Parks moment."

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