A same-sex couple from Naples, Florida said Southwest Airlines denied them family boarding with their children in 2017. The airline updated its family boarding policy in 2019.
Southwest Airlines has updated its family boarding policy nearly two years after a same-sex Florida couple with children said they faced discrimination by a boarding agent, reports The Naples Daily News, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.
The revised policy says “two adults” can board together with children under 6 during family boarding. The policy had read “an adult” can board.
“We are happy with the resolution,” said Grant Morse, 56, who said he faced discrimination in 2017 by a gate agent and considered legal action.
The airline issued a statement that confirmed the policy was updated but refuted Morse’s account of what happened, as it did two years ago. The airline said no discrimination occurred.
“Never has Southwest’s family boarding policy taken into account gender or marital status when determining ability to board early,” the statement said.
The airline investigated what happened and said “confusion in the boarding area surrounded the number, not the genders, of adults allowed early access to the aircraft in our family boarding,” the statement said.
“Both parents were allowed to board early with their children, but we requested a third adult board with her assigned group,” the airline said.
Morse said his family faced discrimination May 20, 2017, during boarding for a Southwest Airlines flight from Buffalo, New York, to Fort Lauderdale. The family’s story garnered international attention.
Morse was traveling with his husband, Sam Ballachino, their three young children and Ballachino’s mother, who was helping with the children. The family lives in Naples, Florida.
The gate agent allowed a heterosexual couple with a child, who were in line behind Morse and Ballachino, to board but stopped Morse and his family.
“She said, ‘This is not for you,’” Morse said, recalling the incident. “It was clearly discriminatory behavior. We were clearly profiled.”
The gate agent’s supervisor backed up the agent, and the family had to wait until the entire plane had boarded.
Morse said he was told four seats were saved for them in the back of the plane, but that was not enough for all of them to sit together.
Morse sat in the back with his twin sons, and his daughter was in a seat in front of him. His husband was a few seats away. Ballachino’s mother was seated in an emergency exit row.
After landing, Morse contacted Southwest to complain. He received a generic response that the airline was sorry for the family’s experience.
Southwest Airlines said in a statement in 2017 that the agent at the gate followed policy, and both parents were invited to board. The third adult was ineligible to board and was asked to wait.
“The conversation in the boarding area had nothing to do with discrimination,” the 2017 statement said. “We welcomed both parents to board the aircraft with their children. The parents expressed disappointment that the family boarding policy did not apply to another member of their group.”
After the media publicity, Southwest Airlines offered a $300 voucher and another generic apology, Morse said. He wanted direct communication with airline executives.
He contacted the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, a nonprofit agency for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality. The center asked for help from Orrick, an international law firm.
“A year later we were filing suit and the attorneys were working back and forth, and (Southwest) said that they would like to meet us at their corporate headquarters,” Morse said.
Twenty airline executives, three corporate attorneys and one outside attorney for the airline met with the couple in Dallas on July 13, 2018.
The executives listened to the couple’s story and individually apologized, Morse said.
“They told us that change would come; they said change takes a lot of time,” he said.
In a statement, Southwest said the meeting was productive and friendly.
“The conversation prompted a closer look at the clarity of our policy through the viewpoints of both our customers and employees,” the statement said.
Last month, the Orrick attorney, Alvin Lee, was contacted by the airline and informed of the policy update effective May 1, 2019.
“We were able to engage in meaningful discussions with Southwest regarding the challenges that LGBTQ families face in their everyday lives,” Lee said in an email. “I am pleased that Southwest has taken certain steps to update its family boarding policy, and that it is attempting to make its airline more welcoming for LGBTQ families.”
Morse said he now believes the 2017 incident occurred because of one rogue employee.
The airline in general is known for its diversity policy with employees, he added.
Since the 2017 incident, the family has not flown Southwest.
“Where we are today, we are reconsidering,” he said.
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