Does Southwest Airlines Overpolice Its Passengers?

What Women Really Think
Sept. 28 2011 11:54 AM

Does Southwest Airlines Overpolice Its Passengers?

Actress Leisha Hailey
Leisha Hailey was recently kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Earlier this week, TMZ reported that Leisha Hailey, an actress and musician most noted for her performance as Alice Pieszecki on The L Word, was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for kissing her girlfriend. Hailey says she and her partner were removed from the plane after being told by a flight attendant that it was a “family airline” and that “kissing was not OK.” She is currently calling for gays and lesbians to boycott Southwest, charging that the incident was an act of homophobia.

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

“They don’t like us,” Hailey wrote of Southwest in a tweet.

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For its part, Southwest has apologized for the unpleasant experience, but defends its employees’ actions in light of passenger reports that the amorous behavior was “excessive.” The airline’s “Contract of Carriage (PDF)” gives plane crews the right to refuse transport to any passenger “whose conduct is or has been known to be disorderly.”

Hailey’s experience is the most recent in a slew of publicized kick-offs that Southwest has had to deal with in the past few years. Other celebrities and normal folks alike have experienced the arguably questionable judgments of Southwest crew regarding their dress, language and general behavior. In February 2010, actor/director Kevin Smith was even asked to leave a plane due to his size, sparking a larger discussion in the media about the ethics of dealing with obesity in public spaces.

Other eyebrow-raising dismissals include Green Day frontman Billie Joe (pants too saggy) and the case of Ricci Wheatley, a grieving woman considered to be a risk because she was “quietly sobbing” while requesting a glass of wine, in addition to more general incidents ranging from having loud children to being “suspicious” and, oh yes, conspicuously Muslim.

While there’s no doubt that airlines should have the right to refuse service in cases where the safety and basic comforts of passengers and crew are demonstrably at risk, Southwest’s policing of boxer exposure and even a passionate kiss seems over the top. But are these cases an example of individual employees acting out of line, or of a general corporate nanny culture?

Reading through Southwest’s guidelines, the problem seems not to lie with the intent but the vagueness of some of the terms employed. For example, there’s a rule that states that one can be removed for having an “offensive odor.” What does that mean, exactly? Chanel No. 5* might be just as offensive as a baby’s dirty diaper, depending on who’s doing the smelling. Similarly, “disorderly conduct” is so abstract as to be meaningless—anything from a minor disagreement between passenger and crew to a major temper tantrum to, apparently, a kiss between ladies could qualify.

Clearly, Southwest needs to better define these terms, as well as maintain a common understanding among its employees. Doing so would prevent all this outsized bad press—for the record, I doubt they’re really homophobic as a company—and save them a lot of free apology vouchers going forward.

*Correction, Sept. 30, 2011: The orginal version of this post misspelled Chanel No. 5.

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