No smooching allowed

Posted on 21 Sep 2006 at 5:21pm
By David Webb Staff Writer

Gay couple admonished for kissing, snuggling on American Airlines flight, pilot threatens to divert plane

Don’t even think about smooching the next time you and your beloved fly anywhere it could get you diverted.

The Sept. 25 issue of The New Yorker included a report about a couple who flew home from Paris to New York on American Airlines Flight 45 in August. The couple that had been together for only four months described their trip abroad as being “like a honeymoon.”

After the plane took off, the couple took turns leaning their heads on each other’s shoulders and exchanging kisses, according to the magazine article. It sounded like a pretty harmless incident, and one you might expect to see on any long plane flight.

But this was a gay male couple, and they soon learned that they had offended someone on that plane. A flight attendant awakened the dozing television journalist and his writer boyfriend and told them to “stop the kissing and touching.”

The startled men complained about the admonishment, found brief support from another airline employee and finally were advised by the airplane’s captain that the plane would be diverted (and you know what that means) if they continued to argue with crewmembers about the incident. They were advised other passengers had complained about their behavior, prompting the flight attendant to scold them.

Even though three other passengers sitting near them were on their side, the two men, George Tsikhiseli and Stephan Varnier, quit complaining to the flight crew. One of the supportive passengers described the couple as reminding him of “lovebirds,” an innocent impression that apparently was not shared by some of the other passengers and crew.

As things tend to go no doubt much to the distress of airline executives the story attracted the attention of The New Yorker. The magazine in turn contacted American Airlines.

An American Airline spokesman was quoted in the article as saying the flight attendant’s actions were reasonable, and the matter would have been handled the same regardless of whether the couple was gay or straight. The spokesman said he understood that the “level of affection was more than a quick peck on the cheek.” I guess that’s the standard only a quick peck on the cheek is allowed.

The only problem I have with that explanation is that during 30 years of plane travel plenty of it on American Airlines I’ve seen romantic activity occur between straight couples. It never occurred to me that I could ask the flight attendant to make them quit kissing or ask them to sit up in their seats.

Even it had occurred to me, I wouldn’t have done that. I’ve learned the art of averting my eyes when I am witnessing intimate moments between couples. I really can’t imagine anyone asking a flight attendant to stop a couple from kissing or embracing.

The question nagging at me now despite the airline’s spokesman’s claims to the contrary was a double standard applied in this case? Would the flight attendants ask a straight couple to stop necking?

I turned to Tim Kincaid, manager of corporate communications for American Airlines for an answer. He is, by the way, gay and involved in a committed relationship.

“If a customer gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or straight finds another customer’s behavior inappropriate and intrusive, and also complains to the flight attendant, the crew member will evaluate the situation and take action based on the reasonableness of the complaint, the information available, possible safety and order implications and consideration to the safety, comfort and well-being of all involved,” Kincaid said. “That may or may not mean asking that the activity cease the complaint may be unreasonable. We have to rely on judgment and experience applied in a very even-handed way to make the flight experience safe foremost, and comfortable and relaxing for all.”

Kincaid said that in the case of Flight 45, the crew determined that the customers’ activities were inappropriate for a commercial airplane regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of those involved.

As Kincaid notes, American Airlines has over the years earned a solid reputation in the LGBT community for fairness and equality in the workplace and marketplace. It scored 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s recently-released 2006 Corporate Equality Index.

In all fairness to American Airlines, it needs to be conceded that the flying public probably just isn’t ready to grant the same privileges to gay and lesbian couples that it will to straight couples. What seemed outrageous for a gay couple might not even have attracted attention if it had involved a straight couple.

It remains to be seen whether a flight attendant would take such a complaint from a gay person against a straight couple seriously, but something tells me someone is going to give it a try. It won’t be me though. I think we’ve got more serious things to worry about these days when we fly.

E-mail webb@dallasvoice.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 22, 2006.

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