Gay travelers rap United

The news that his partner’s father was sick cut Court Passant’s recent Palm Springs, Calif., trip short. United Airlines booked the pair on the next flight back to Newark and charged them $75 to change their tickets.

But when the New York television producer called United for a refund on the fee, the carrier balked. “The representative explained that she could only refund the service charge for a family member, but could not refund my money since I was not related,” he says.

Passant isn’t related to his partner because he doesn’t have the option of marrying him. “I feel that the policy is anti-gay,” he says.

United doesn’t see it that way. It contends that it already offered Passant and his partner a break on the return trip and that its decision to keep the $75 fee is unrelated to his sexual orientation. But I was skeptical, so I made a few inquiries.

“We are fairly flexible on this and tend to handle bereavement fares on a case-by-case basis,” says United spokesman Matt Triaca. He added that sexual orientation and marital status aren’t necessarily factors.

Nonetheless, there’s a perception that the Chicago carrier is anti-gay. In San Francisco, United Airlines is fighting a domestic partners ordinance that would extend employment benefits to same-sex couples. I’ve even gotten e-mails from United employees asking me to write about this subject.

United insists that its reluctance has to do with a local government trying to regulate a national industry and isn’t discriminatory.

But not everyone buys that. Members of San Francisco’s board of supervisors and gay rights advocates last year called for a nationwide boycott of United Airlines. And this spring, an activist group called the Equal Benefits Advocates began airing nationwide television ads supporting a boycott.

Billy Kolber-Stuart, editor of Out & About, a monthly newsletter for gay and lesbian travelers, says the gay community is disappointed with the way United is handling the same-sex benefits issue. His publication regularly evaluates the carriers based on their policies toward homosexual travelers, and he says “United is not free from discrimination.”

Take the bereavement fare issue. “American Airlines specifically includes same-sex partners in its bereavement fares policy,” says Kolber-Stuart. “United doesn’t. And because of that, gay people are frequently denied bereavement fares on United.”

Question is, does United deserve a bad rap – and even a boycott? A look at Out & About’s airline scorecard suggests that there are other airlines that are far more deserving of the “discriminatory” label. Only 3 of 12 major carriers surveyed earlier this year specifically offered bereavement fares for domestic partners – American, Northwest and US Airways.

Although United was awarded the publication’s “Rock Bottom” award last year, it has made something of a turnaround in 1999, getting a “B” and kind words from Out & About.

Still, Los Angeles antidiscrimination lawyer Bradley Gage says the airline is on shaky legal ground, both in the way it treats employees and passengers. “The law has been evolving to recognize couples, straight or gay, that live together in a monogamous relationship in which they treat each other as husband and wife. If one person’s parent dies, the other one would want to accompany them.”

When it comes to bereavement fare policies, it’s clear that United isn’t the worst offender. When it comes to extending benefits to same-sex partners of employees, same thing. So if I were to nail an airline for being homophobic, it wouldn’t be United.

I think the carrier just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got caught up in an unfortunate legal spat.

Passant’s problem highlights the fact that there’s still a lot of progress to be made throughout the airline industry in the way of policies toward gays and lesbians.

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