On Pan Am, the new television show that depicts a long-gone, glamorous side of flying, the flight attendants are young and perky, attentive and kind, and coddle their customers’ every need throughout the flight. Dream on. Today, flying is a chore, getting a bag of peanuts is a privilege, and if you are Leisha Hailey, the actress most known for her role as Alice on The L Word, giving your girlfriend a kiss will get you a lecture from a flight attendant about family values and an eventual escort off the plane.
On Monday, the actress and musician tweeted: “I have been discriminated against by @SouthwestAir. Flt. attendant said that it was a ‘family’ airline and kissing was not ok.”
Hailey, who has not responded for comment, wrote that after confronting the flight attendant, she and her girlfriend were thrown off the plane. “We were escorted off the plane for getting upset about the issue. @SouthwestAir endorses homophobic employees. No one made her accountable.” She called for a boycott and wrote: “Since when is showing affection towards someone you love illegal? I want to know what Southwest Airlines considers as ‘family.’”
Calls and repeated emails to the airline were not returned, but Southwest issued a statement on its website and chalked it up to behavior, not gender. “Initial reports indicate that we received several passenger complaints characterizing the behavior as excessive … The conversation escalated to a level that was better resolved on the ground, as opposed to in flight.”
The airline failed to elaborate what would be considered excessive behavior by Hailey, and since a single kiss between two women would likely be considered excessive by a homophobic passenger, perhaps that it is all it took to lodge a complaint. On the Twitter account for Hailey’s band, @UhHuhHerMusic, she took issue with Southwest’s definition of “excessive.” She tweeted: “@SouthwestAir I didn’t realize a small peck on the lips is regarded as excessive and never once did your stewardess mention other passengers.”
Tuesday, Hailey and her bandmate and girlfriend, Camila Grey, issued a statement clarifying what happened on the flight and revealed that she and Grey were only on the plane for five minutes before they’d been reprimanded, and admitted that her outraged reaction, which resulted in them getting kicked off the plane was inexcusable. “We want to make it clear we were not making out or creating any kind of spectacle of ourselves, it was one, modest kiss ... We were never told the reason the flight attendant approached us, we were only scolded that we ‘needed to be aware that Southwest Airlines was a family oriented airline.’" They did not consider Southwest’s statement to be an apology. “We are in the process of filing a formal complaint with the airline.”
Indeed, Southwest issued a second statement, a quid-pro-quo of sorts, to Hailey and Grey’s press release, which added that “profane language was being used loudly.”
This isn’t the first time the airline has been in the hot seat over its alleged treatment of high-profile customers. Just last year, director Kevin Smith went on a Twitter frenzy when he was kicked off a plane for being too heavy for the plane.
“You [messed] with the wrong sedentary processed-foods eater!” Smith wrote. He’d been deemed a “safety risk.” Though he normally bought two seats, he was flying standby and was seated in a single seat, before being deemed too “fat to fly.”
After his tweeting marathon resulted in a media storm, Southwest issued another statement and a peace offering: a $100 voucher.
And a few weeks ago, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong was kicked off a Southwest flight for wearing low-riding jeans. He tweeted: “Just got kicked off a Southwest flight because my pants sagged too low!” And: “What the f-? No joke!”
Controversy over customer treatment on the airline isn’t limited to celebrities. The same airline that chided Armstrong also asked a woman who was wearing too-revealing clothing (as adjudicated by the flight attendant) to change clothes or she would be kicked off the plane. She said the attendant also cited that they were a “family” airline. (She covered up with a blanket instead and was allowed to fly.) And yet, two years later the airline plastered their planes with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models.
The airline was unsuccessfully sued by an African-American woman for using racism to selectively apply their two-seats-for-overweight-passengers rule.
And in another incident, in May, the airline personally apologized and offered vouchers and a ticket reimbursement to Kenlie Tiggeman, a weight-loss blogger, and her mother after they said they were humiliated when their weight was debated in front of other customers—but only after she blogged and tweeted about it. Tiggeman, who blogged about the incident on her website All The Weigh, said in an interview Tuesday that she just wishes the airline would be consistent in its treatment of customers. “They need to make some sort of finite policy because right now, it’s really gray. And they need to enforce it properly,” she said. “I think the airline has a responsibility to treat the consumers with respect. We are paying the money.”
“It’s a matter of equal rights and equal access,” she said. “I’ve said that so many times in so many interviews. Equal rights and equal access. I can’t make it more plain.”
And the hits keep coming for Southwest: Monday an unidentified package containing 60 severed heads (which were later determined to be on route to a company for medical research) was found aboard. And, in June 2011, one of its pilots was suspended without pay after leaving his microphone on and blurting out anti-gay and ageist comments for four minutes, which was accidentally broadcast to aircraft controllers. He was allowed back in the air after undergoing diversity training.
You have to wonder, how then does Southwest continually score high ratings for its customer service? In 2010, the airline was named “Best Low Cost Airline in North America” by Business Traveler magazine. And Bloomberg Businessweek ranked the airline at 13th in a survey of customer-service elite among a range of products and brands—including banks, auto companies, and technology companies. It was the only airline on the list.
In 2011, Southwest was ranked No. 1 by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, attaining its highest score in more than 15 years.
As ACSI Managing Director David VanAmburg explained, the results for his company’s surveys are based on the actual experiences that customers have—not on public perception. ACSI culls results from more than 4,000 randomly sampled customers, and Southwest consistently ranks higher than other airlines. “Value is near the top of the list. What we’ll find, of course, is that as the economy is more challenged, people are putting a premium on value,” he said. “In a challenged economy when people are pinching pennies, that tends to carry a lot of weight; people are looking to stretch their dollar as much as possible. They tend to be influenced more in the satisfaction of their experience by the price they are paying rather than the quality they are receiving.”
Or, to put it more directly, people like Southwest because it’s cheap. So, fat people, gay people, and low-wearing pants people might continue to get kicked off, but if the price is right people will still fly the unfriendly skies. “If Southwest was kicking off 100 overweight passengers a day, that would probably have a huge impact on their customer service,” said VanAmburg. “ But what we are seeing are a handful of important but very high profile but limited incidents, and they aren’t going to change the perception of the vast majority of customers out there.”
Those customers who have been told they were inappropriate for whatever reason probably wouldn’t agree. As for Leisha Hailey’s alleged treatment, perhaps Southwest’s flight attendants would do well to look at their own GLBT Outreach page for pointers. It reads, in part: “At Southwest Airlines, we take pride in our outreach and commitment to the GLBT community ... We look forward to welcoming you onboard soon.”