My preferred airline strikes again

Photo credit The Advocate

By Charles Chan Massey, Co-founder and Executive Director, The Personal Stories Project
May 30, 2017

Author’s note: I am writing this post as myself and not in my official capacity as Executive Director of The Personal Stories Project. As it is most definitely a personal story about members of the LGBT community I feel it is appropriate to share on our page. Please read and share widely. Thank you. 

Like many mornings of late, I awoke early today after a night of intense dreams. The latest episode: I was upgraded to the “William Shatner Suite” at some random hotel someplace in the world. Naturally, I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and headed over to Google to see if such a suite actually exists. Alas, while there’s no such animal, it did lead me to Facebook where the first item in my newsfeed was a post from our friends at the Family Equality Council about yet another situation that took place on a United Airlines flight.

Last week while I was traveling I had run across a Facebook post from fellow activist and well-respected member of the LGBT community Henry Amador-Batten about a horrendous situation he and his son recently experienced on their United flight from Newark to Raleigh-Durham. Earlier today Henry told me that Ben, his five-year-old son, was in the seat next to him on the flight, sleeping, with his head on Henry’s arm, and with his own arm wrapped around Henry’s arm, leaving Henry’s hand resting on Ben’s lap. Ben is afraid of flying so he was holding onto his dad for comfort.

The following is from an article published in The Advocate (CLICK HERE to open the full article in a new window) about Henry and Ben’s experience:

“The United crew member accused him of placing his hand and arm ‘too close to the child’s genitals.’ When it came time to leave the flight, Amador-Batten was detained and questioned for over an hour. Amador-Batten and his husband, Joel, adopted their son and are foster parents to another boy, making any report a serious risk to finalizing adoption of their second son. ‘We got a call (from United) the day after the accusation,’ recalls Amador-Batten, who said the representative asked ‘if we wouldn’t mind keeping this low key. She even mentioned all the bad press they’d been having and that she liked her job and wanted to keep it. That was literally a part of our ‘apology call.’”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re likely familiar with another situation that recently took place on a United flight. In case you aren’t, CLICK HERE for video of that incident, which did indeed result in a public relations disaster for United.

I’ve flown slightly under 2 million paid miles on United in my lifetime (1,842,666 to be exact, and aren’t those last three numbers spooky?) and hit one million miles in 2010. Like many large companies in general, and airlines in particular, United has been through a lot and their employees have as well. Bankruptcies, mergers, pay cuts – you name it – I’m sure it hasn’t always been the most fun place to work.

A number of years ago we were on a flight from LAX to Sydney in Global First (what United called International First Class at the time) and experienced the worst of the worst as far as customer service goes. We had cashed in a ton of miles for what was supposed to be a wonderful inflight experience but it quickly became clear to us that each and every flight attendant on that plane hated United, hated their jobs, and were determined to take their frustrations out on the passengers. It didn’t matter where in the plane one sat, the experience was horrendous.

Ironically, on the way back, and in the same class of service, we had the complete opposite experience. The entire crew couldn’t have been nicer. I shared our experience from the flight down with the inflight supervisor who seemed genuinely concerned and apologized on behalf of both her colleagues and the company, not offering excuses (of which I’m sure there are plenty) but rather offering a sincere apology.

Since that time, I have had ups and downs with United. Great service on one flight followed by lousy service on another, lost luggage and missed connections, some of which were handled professionally and correctly and others that were managed so badly I resulted to public shaming via social media. Until recently nothing has made me question my loyalty to United, which, to be honest, has primarily been driven by the fact that we have lifetime Gold status, combined with the fact that they have some of the best partners in the world (Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, etc.). After all, I told myself, “other legacy US carriers are just as bad, right?” “No company is perfect.” and my favorite expression to use in these cases “Better to deal with the devil you know than the one you don’t.”

But I digress. The case I referenced above, where Dr. David Dao was literally dragged off the plane, was among the worst things I’d ever seen. Yet still, I wasn’t ready to let go of the perks, not to mention the fact that we have – literally – thousands of dollars in upcoming flights already booked on United for the remainder of this year. While other folks were posting things such as “I hope United goes bankrupt” I was called a United apologist (and worse via private messages).

I’ve also routinely used my United miles for others. I regularly fly my niece, who lives on a limited income, across the country to see her family for holidays. I recently flew a disabled woman from Florida to Sacramento to attend her mother’s funeral. I have on more than one occasion donated miles to fellow activists and bloggers so they could attend conferences that they otherwise would’ve been unable to afford. So United has, albeit indirectly, helped me help my family and my community.

This latest situation obviously hits close to home for me. As an openly gay man, half of a legally married same-sex couple, and an activist, I am appalled that a flight crew would take it upon themselves to arrange to have the police waiting for Henry without even having the courtesy to approach him first. Don’t they have a manifest with the passenger’s names on it? If so, wasn’t Henry’s full name, and his son’s, listed?

I’ve never shared this next part publicly until now. Back in the 1980’s my boyfriend at the time and I were returning from Mexico City on a flight via Dallas/Ft. Worth. On the DFW to IAD (Washington, DC) leg we were accused by a flight attendant of stealing money from her purse. A priest who was traveling on the same flight somehow became involved in the conversation and asked if we were a couple and if one of us might have perhaps stolen the money unbeknownst to the other, making us think that we had been unfairly profiled because we were gay (we had been holding hands while we were seated). While I’ll never know for sure if my boyfriend was guilty of the charges I know damned well I wasn’t. We were both searched by the airport police on arrival and no money was found, but the situation lingers in my memory to this day.

In our case, we had advance notice. In Henry’s case, he simply departed the flight to find police waiting to question him with no warning. I can imagine how I would’ve felt because I’ve lived a version of it. But to experience it with my child by my side? There are no words.

United, you have a lot more ‘splaining’ to do than you’ve done so far. While I may have been loyal through thick and thin until now and it would appear I’m stuck with you for the rest of this year, I’m sure there are other carriers that would love to have my business. Obviously, you owe an apology to the Amador-Batten family, but you also owe an apology to the LGBT community. I’m waiting, but all I hear so far is silence.

Charles Chan Massey describes himself as an “accidental activist.” He co-founder The Personal Stories Project in 2013 and co-founded One Million Kids for Equality the following year. Charles lives in Los Angeles with his husband Joseph and their three cats.