Michael Hamar

United/Continental Sends Gay Travelers a Foul Message

Filed By Michael Hamar | June 15, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Continental Airlines, gay dollars, gay tourism, gay travel, Houston, United Continental Holdings

During the ongoing Great Recession, one of the brighter lights for the travel industry has been the LGBT travel niche which has remained far more stable than other segments where tourism levels and tourist dollars have plummeted. Many cities are actively courting gay travelers - even Richmond, Virginia, of all places has added an LGBT page to the city's visitor and convention bureau website and the City of Norfolk recently issued a proclamation in honor of Hampton Roads Pride's Out in the Park event.

American Airlines has recently done a video for the "It Gets Better" project. Indeed, it makes good business sense to court the LGBT market.

Yet strangely enough, employees at United/Continental Airlines at Houston Intercontinental Airport sent two gay travelers returning from a luxury trip to Costa Rica (they first contacted me roughly two and a half weeks weeks ago) a very different and disturbing message.

One of the pieces of baggage of this young professional couple (who were legally married in Canada nearly four years ago) was deliberately vandalized in a manner to cause the couple maximum embarrassment and humiliation. This message - as explained below - is apparently viewed either as being perfectly fine or certainly no big deal by the powers that be at United/Continental headquarters.

The image above shows what this couple's bag looked like as it circulated around the luggage carousel before an entire plane load of travelers in their conservative home city's airport. The fact that the bag was deliberately sabotaged is confirmed by the fact that the zippers on the bag continue to be fully functional and the bag can be securely sealed without any difficulty.

That's right. Someone opened the bag, extracted the "toy" and then taped it to the outside of the bag with clear "Continental" tape. Oh, and did I mention that some type of lubricant was smeared on the toy in order to insinuate that it had just been used? Here are brief highlights from the e-mail I received describing the couple's ordeal (the first paragraph deals with the condition of their luggage in Houston. The second and third, address what they encountered at their home city airport):

As we arrived in Houston, Texas ("IAH"), we shuffled through the line for Immigration, and then picked up our two (2) checked bags as required by law upon our return into the US from a foreign country. With bags in-hand we continued while making our way through a security checkpoint, then approached the area we were to check the bags-back-in, picked up our bags which were in sound and undamaged condition prior to handing them to the attendant who then sent them through the X-ray machine that housed a conveyor belt which sent them to wherever they go from there.

After arriving at our home airport while waiting around the baggage carousel, [he] kept looking for our last bag to come out. Then, a bag did in-fact emerge that had a similar appearance to ours; however, it appeared to be wrapped sporadically with CLEAR plastic tape bearing the logo "Continental" and seemed strangely malformed. As it got closer and much to his surprise...and moreover, his HORROR, he saw a sex toy we had packed, had been removed from the middle of the bag and taped right on top of the bag for everyone to see. SO EMBARRASSED, ABSOLUTELY MORTIFIED...just knowing that everyone in sight had already seen it and after looking at their faces that depicted disbelief, some were snickering, others completely astonished, and of course, disgust was ubiquitous. . . . .

[He] grabbed our bag . . . . then began quickly striding for the exit while clenching the bag towards his chest, struggling to conceal the open end of the bag while in total discomfiture and despair. [Our friend who was picking us up] is a witness. She saw it. She was completely flabbergasted and appalled that United/Continental Airlines OR ANYONE for that matter would do such a thing to begin with . . .

And what has United/Continental's response been to this travesty? They faxed a letter two days after the couple's 10-day deadline for a response/apology had passed that read: "they'd look into it." The demand for a response/apology was e-mailed to United/Continental CEO Jeff Smisek (jeff.smisek@united.com) (312-997-8000) - who claims that he reads every one of his e-mails - and confirmed via a letter.

What really scares me is that my partner and I are scheduled to fly to Barcelona on United/Continental in the fall. I'm currently debating whether or not to look into seeing how much it will cost to cancel our reservation so we can rebook with another airline.

The airline industry collected $3.4 billion from baggage fees last year alone (up 24% from the previous year) of which approximately $655 million went directly to United/Continental, which makes one wonder where all of those profits may be going exactly? Evidently, at least for United/Continental, not towards employee training programs consistent with maintaining HRC's Equality Index ratings regarding "Sensitivity Training" and "Positively engaging the external LGBT Community" or "Responsible Citizenship."

How long do Airlines really think they can continue charging ludicrous fees in exchange for tumultuous service that provides for intentional infliction of emotional distress, discrimination, invasion of privacy, etc.? Even after being confronted with their abominable actions, United/Continental has unbelievably refused to act as if they actually give a damn. The all-so-familiar "Please wait..." just became intolerable.

(Crossposted at my personal blog)

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Is there reason to believe that this was done intentionally against the couple because they were gay? How would a worker know that their luggage belonged to a gay couple? Perhaps it was done because the sex toy was found in someone's luggage rather than because it was a sex toy in a gay couple's luggage?

But regardless of the motivation, this kind of abuse of a client's private possessions is completely unacceptable! Continental/United better have a damn good explanation and plan in place when they find out who did this. If they have so much free time to abuse someone's luggage and property, maybe they have enough free time to find a new job.

It is unlikely that whoever opened the bag knew it belonged to a gay couple. It is, however, very likely that that person knew it belonged to a male. Most passengers have some type of identification on the outside of the bag which includes their name. There's also the possibility that a personal luggage tag would have both of their names on it. In both cases it's not impossible to imagine someone assuming the bag belonged to a gay man.

As an American employee, I find this incident disturbing. I've always found the airline business to be very LGBT friendly, so I'm hoping United/Continental can come up with a better response than "We're looking into it."

I'd just like to mention, if I may, that more investigation seems needed. The reason being that multiple points of contact with the luggage are made, giving all involved an opportunity to have plausible deniability and engage in the "ah, but that wasn't us, so not our problem" sort of brush off that is almost certain to happen as a result.

In a typical trip, the people who handle baggage consist of: the folks at the kiosks who check in the baggage. THen you have employees who might belong to the airline flying one, another airline altogether, or the airport, and then you have TSA inspectors (who's job it is to open said bags after scanning them if they see anything remarkable), then the same process sans the TSA strikes when they land in a different airport.

That's each time. SO it could be the Airport, it could be the Airline, it could be the TSA who were involved here. And *all* of them have multiple points of failure when it comes to "sex related" items.

If we as a community are going to hold someone accountable for this incident, then we need to make sure that we hold the right people accountable.

Which may well be *all* of those possible groups, equally.

In response to the above questions, here are a couple of points:

(1) The bag was marked with both of the men's names and had a common address on the name tag. Obviously, it did not prove they were a gay couple, but it could suggest that such was the case to the small minded.

(2) If "someone else" vanadalized the bag, why didn't Continental personnel - the last to handle it - simply put the bag in a box and avoid the spectacle? Or better yet, why was the bag simply zipped closed? The zipper is still 100% functioning.

Thanks, Michael.

Continental people may not have been the ones to wrap it in the tape. That tape is used by airports, TSA personnel, and the carrier; as well, it is tied to the ticket tag that they use to track the baggage as it moves through the various areas. So, again, the tape itself is not indicative of the airline alone bearing responsibility.

None of this is me sayng that something should not be done, either -- my point is that something should be done, and we need to look closely at all the possibilities involved here.

Airline employees in "red" states are often very homophobic. THe TSA has the ability to look up pretty much anyone's id information at any point in the process, and they have a history of some really incredibly homophobic and racist things (should I remind of the Board that was up in one office not too long ago?). And just as the airlines often hire homophobic people, so do airports.

This is a failure on all three parts -- made all the more glaring by the fact that the tape is on there obviously to call attention to the fact that someone knew what was in that bag, and that they deliberately set it in such a manner as to be found.

Ok, sure, yeah, they might not have known it was a gay couple -- but, truly, does that make this any less incredibly horrible? And the fact that it was a gay couple makes it all the worse, to me.

I suspect we'll know who's got he greatest responsibility the moment someone starts to suggest not traveling with sex toys. As that would be the people, in my mind, who would ultimately be supportive of such stuff.

DennisNYC | June 16, 2011 1:35 AM

No Antonia... these gentlemen were required to pay the airline for the "service" of checking the bag. The bag made it through customs without incident. They were then once again required to check it with the airline. At the final destination, the bag was placed on the carousel by the airline's employees. The legal and moral responsibility clearly lies with the airline and no other entity.

I hope the gentlemen sue the ass of the airline an win a huge settlement for the pain, anguish and humiliation that they were forced to endure!

In addition, the airline should not only NOT charge them a fee for canceling their future flight so they can re-book on a friendlier airline... the airline should pay for the ticket for that future flight. This entire situation is infuriating!!!

This stood out to me too:

This is a failure on all three parts -- made all the more glaring by the fact that the tape is on there obviously to call attention to the fact that someone knew what was in that bag, and that they deliberately set it in such a manner as to be found.
Bob Roehr | June 16, 2011 7:47 PM

The most logical point for someone to learn what was in the bag was when it was screened by security. The image of the object is not exactly commonplace and probably has some of the same imaging characteristics of plastic expolsives, so a physical search likely was conducted. That was probably done where they boarded the plane -- in Costa Rica.

What, if anything, the airline employees should have done subsequently is a matter for some discussion, but I'd be fairly understanding of doing nothing.

Damn, that's one supersized dildo.

I would've probably replied to onlookers "Well, you can't take one like that, can you? *raspberry sound*"

FYI, I wrote a complaint to CO/UA some time ago and got a personal call from a Continental/United rep last week who was VERY concerned about this item. The link to this article did not make it through their web contact "portal" intact, so I emailed it to her directly. She seemed horrified by what had happened, but was certain it could not have been Continental/United employees - that the bag must have been tampered with by source handlers because CO/UA handlers don't touch bags prior to customs inspection. In any case, she has more details, a direct link to this info and seemed sincere about following up.