You may have read the story about the Minnesota man and his kids who were removed from a Southwest Airlines flight because he expressed dissatisfaction with the company’s boarding policy on Twitter.
The father wanted his two kids to board early with him but because of their status that was denied. Here’s USAToday’s summary of the incident:
Duff Watson of New Hope, Minn. [said] he’s an elite “A-List” member of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program. A-List customers are entitled to early boarding because of their status, and Watson assumed that would include his children – ages 9 and 6 – who were traveling with him on a flight from Denver to Minneapolis.
A gate agent informed Watson that was not the case, and they’d have to wait until after priority boarding to get on the aircraft. But Watson, [reported he had] been able to board early with his kids on previous trips, claims the gate agent “rudely and dismissively” told him they’d have to wait.
The father, Duff Watson, expressed his frustration on Twitter and included the gate agent’s first name:
“I said in caps: RUDEST AGENT IN DENVER. KIMBERLY S. GATE C39. NOT HAPPY @SWA,”
He was later asked to leave the flight because the gate agent felt “threatened.” Once he agreed to delete the tweet he and his children were allowed to get back on the flight.
The carrier, according to its own “contract of carriage” (embedded below) is permitted to deny boarding or remove passengers from the plane under a range of circumstances. Here’s my incomplete, edited version of the conditions or circumstances:
- Whenever such action is necessary, with or without notice, for reasons of aviation safety
- Force Majeure Event (outside carrier’s control)
- Government Request or Regulation (compliance with law)
- Interference with Flight Crew: Passengers who interfere or attempt to interfere with any member of the flight crew in carrying out its duties
- Search of Passenger or Property
- (Refusal to provide) Proof of Identity
- Incompatible Medical Requirements
- Comfort and Safety . . . including (i) Persons whose conduct is or has been known to be disorderly, abusive, offensive, threatening, intimidating, violent, or whose clothing is lewd, obscene, or patently offensive.
- Non-Smoking Policy (violation of)
I’ve highlighted the the clauses that Southwest might have been able to point to to justify removal of the passenger and his family for the remarks on Twitter. This is probably why the rude gate agent used the phrase “threatened.” Otherwise the guy’s conduct doesn’t qualify.
In addition Southwest’s specific boarding-related policies (at least available on its site) are largely silent on this situation: letting lower-status children board with a priority boarding family member (United allows this). The one relevant statement I could find was the following:
Can groups assigned to different boarding positions board together?
Yes. However, in order to maintain the integrity of the boarding process, we ask that earlier boarding positions board with the later positions. For example, if a passenger is assigned position A16 and wants to board with a passenger assigned position A45, the passenger holding the A16 boarding pass should board with the A45 passenger.
Watson’s Tweet clearly was not a threat to the gate agent, nor did it create an unsafe or disorderly condition on the plane. It was a customer service complaint. Accordingly Southwest breached its contract with Watson and his children. It also violated his First Amendment rights.
The airline deserves to be sued. However because he was ultimately let back on the flight there are probably no damages and the case isn’t worth filing.
The larger point, and why I find this so outrageous, is that there’s a power struggle going on between customers/consumers and corporations. Companies have for years gotten away with unfair policies and poor customer service and social media are now leveling the playing field and putting pressure on them. Some companies are reacting with nefarious terms or by using intimidation tactics. This incident was an example of the latter.
I don’t believe that agent really felt threatened. She probably felt angry and offended.
Many (not all) airline employees have a tense, condescending or openly antagonistic relationship with passengers. This was likely an act of hostility or retaliation by the Southwest employee.
Southwest needs to discipline and train the employee. It also needs to be much more communicative about its boarding policies. The right thing to do in this situation would have been to let the kids board with their father and inform him of the policy and that this was an exception. Instead the company (and its embittered employee) chose to be punitive.