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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

United/Continental Sends Gay Travelers a Foul Message

By Michael Hamar -

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 ( (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.

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