Holy water! Did Southwest mistreat passenger on a pilgrimage?

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By Christopher Elliott

There isn’t much Val Maswadi and Southwest Airlines can agree on.

Here are a few undisputed facts: Maswadi and her family had scheduled a flight from Chicago to Orlando this summer. They were coming from a religious pilgrimage in Saudi. In Chicago, they had a disagreement with a Southwest agent over jugs of holy water they wanted to check with their luggage. After an argument, Maswadi’s flight was involuntarily refunded.

(Note: And earlier version of this post suggested the family was on its way to Saudi.)

Maswadi says Southwest was “abusive” and insensitive to her religious beliefs.

Clash over holy water leads to travel delay

“I was never able to get checked in, and had to delay my travel with a different airline the next day,” she says. “It cost me money, time, and a lot of heartache. It is a shame for Southwest to hire such individuals that can’t treat customers well — employees that are ignorant of other cultures and religions.”

Maswadi contacted me because she believed the Southwest agent with which she argued acted inappropriately. She says the agent wouldn’t let her check the holy water in her luggage and then, after arguing, removed her bags from the conveyer belt, refunded her ticket, and told her to fly on another airline.

What set the ticket agent off?

“I agreed not to check in the water but also informed her that I would report her behavior as I wrote down her name,” she says. “At that time she got more angry. She decided I should find another airline.”

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I asked her if she’d contacted Southwest in writing about this incident. It turns out she hadn’t.

Here’s what Southwest had to say after she asked

We received your e-mail and are sorry to hear that we have left you doubting our commitment to Customer Service. Thank you for giving us the chance to follow up on your concerns and to apologize for letting you down.

In researching you situation, we contacted the Chicago Midway Station (MDW). According to our records, we show that you never boarded Flight #1446. Rather, our MDW Lobby Manager advised that this incident occurred at the baggage check-in area. He went on to explain that you and your family were attempting to check in two 3-gallon unmarked plastic containers full of liquid. Our employees explained to you that the jugs of liquid could not be checked-in as baggage or taken on the plane as carry-on items because they were improperly packed. However, our Agents offered to hold the items for you to be picked up a later time, but they advised us that you declined our offer.

It is important to point out that Southwest Airline’s Contract of Carriage states that we may, at our sole discretion, chose to refuse to transport as checked baggage, items that are improperly packed. The reasoning behind this is that some items are not always able to withstand the shifting cargo loads associated with turbulence and weight distribution inside an aircraft luggage compartment during takeoff and landing. In these cases, if the containers were to get damaged, there is a high chance that their contents would spill out, potentially damaging other Passenger’s checked luggage. With this in mind, our MDW Employees refused to accept your plastic containers as checked luggage because they were not properly packed.

Additionally, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) maintains that all liquids must be in a 3.4 ounce bottle to be acceptable as a carry-on; Therefore, the liquids you attempted to check in would be unfit as carry-on items as well.

It is our understanding that the items in question held a strong religious value to you, and we are so sorry that we were unable to accommodate your request to transport them. That said, our MDW Manager also advised that your family was refused transportation due to their threatening and confrontational behavior. Our Contract of Carriage specifically cites our responsibility to deny access and/or transportation to any “person or persons whose conduct may compromise his/her own comfort and/or Safety or the comfort and Safety of others.” These provisions apply to any person or persons whose conduct is, appears, or has been known to be disorderly, abusive, uncooperative, offensive, threatening, intimidating, or violent. Our MDW Manager went on to advise that the local law enforcement was called in order to help mediate the situation. Since we did not provide you and your family with transportation, please know that your unused tickets have been refunded to the original form of payment.

We are saddened to hear of this unpleasant experience. Furthermore, I assure you that Southwest Airlines does not condone discrimination or prejudice in any form. In fact, a cursory view of our workforce, as well as our expansive, multi-cultural Customer base, is a reliable indicator that we exalt and appreciate diversity. Regardless of the circumstances, we care about the impression we leave on our Customers, and we want them to know that their complaints are taken seriously. I want you to know that the appropriate Leaders have been made aware of your concerns.

Again, we appreciate your taking time out of your day to let us know about your recent experience. We understand that you must do what you feel is necessary to achieve peace-of-mind about these events, but it is our hope that you will consider all perspectives before drawing your final conclusions about Southwest Airlines. Thank you for your patience and your patronage.

I asked Maswadi what she thought of Southwest’s rebuttal. She wasn’t impressed. It isn’t uncommon for consumers to feel this way about Southwest Airlines.

“I’m disappointed,” she told me. “I did follow the rules. The person at the counter just refused to hear me and roughly handled my luggage. She kept saying this is not because of your religion. And that statement in itself made me uncomfortable.”

I wasn’t present, so I don’t know what really happened. But the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Did Maswadi and her family get a little extra scrutiny because of their attire, which suggested they were devout Muslims? I can’t imagine that not being the case.

At the same time, having large jugs of liquid would be problematic, no matter what your appearance. (Here’s what you should do if your flight gets delayed or canceled.)

The takeaway for the rest of us: Don’t get into an argument with the ticket agent, if possible. And if law enforcement has to be called to mediate a dispute, don’t expect to fly that day.

Southwest refunded the ticket in the end, but refused to compensate Maswadi for additional expenses incurred because of the altercation.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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