NAPLES, Fla. — A Naples man said he and his family were discriminated against when a Southwest Airlines employee wouldn’t allow the same-sex couple, their three children and their grandmother to board as a family.
Grant Morse, his husband, Sam Ballachino, their three children and Ballachino’s mother were waiting in the family boarding area at the gate at the Buffalo, New York, airport, ready to catch their flight to Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, when a gate agent quickly approached them.
“Excuse me, this is family boarding only,” Morse said the woman told them. “This is only for family boarding.”
Puzzled, Morse and Ballachino, both 54, looked at each other.
“Well, we are a family and we’re married, and these are our three kids,” Morse said they told the agent. “And that’s our 83-year-old mother that is helping us.”
But the Southwest Airlines agent didn’t budge, Morse said. At first, the couple, who have been together for 26 years and legally married for five, thought they were caught up in a misunderstanding. So they stayed.
After the agent finished loading the “A section” of the plane — Southwest does not have seating assignments — and announced that family boarding would follow, Morse and his family approached the podium at the gate, attempting to board, he said.
“She very loudly and abruptly said, ‘It is family boarding only. You’re not a family and it’s not your time to board,'” Morse said the agent said.
Then it hit him.
“I thought, ‘Holy crud, I know what’s happening,'” Morse said. “Because before I couldn’t believe it and I was doubting it.”
Morse tried to talk to the agent. Eventually, she told them the children could board with one adult, he said.
“And I’m like, ‘I’m a father and he’s a father. It is impossible for one person to push three strollers and handle twin boys at 3 and a girl at 5,'” Morse said.
A supervisor affirmed the agent’s actions and the family had to wait until the whole plane had boarded, Morse said. Among those who boarded before the Naples family was a couple — a man and a woman — with a young child, he said.
Morse’s pleas with the agent and her supervisor fell on deaf ears, he said.
Eventually, Morse and his family were told the airline had saved four seats for them at the back of the plane, he said. Not enough for the family to sit together as planned.
“So they were still not recognizing one of their legal birth parents as a parent,” Morse said.
Morse sat in the back, his twin boys next to him, his daughter in front of him and Ballachino a few seats up. Ballachino’s mother was seated in an emergency exit row, Morse said.
“I have never seen an 83-year-old woman that weighs about 110 pounds be capable of lifting a 40-pound door and throwing it out of the way, in case an emergency evacuation had to occur,” he said.
A Southwest Airlines spokesman could not provide information as to whether or why the grandmother was seated in an emergency exit row.
“Our reports do not have information regarding this family’s travel onboard our aircraft, other than the proactive work by our Ground Supervisor and Flight Attendant to save seats for the family,” the spokesman said in an email.
Southwest Airlines officials in an emailed statement said the agent at the gate followed policy and that both parents were invited to board but that the third adult “was ineligible to board under Family Boarding and asked that she board in her assigned boarding group.”
“The conversation in the boarding area had nothing to do with discrimination,” Southwest Airlines said in its emailed statement. “We welcomed both parents to board the aircraft with their children. The parents expressed disappointment that the Family Boarding policy did not apply to another member of their group.”
Morse said that is not true.
“(T)he gate agent clearly refuse(d) one of the parents the right to board,” Morse wrote in an email. “The gate agent was only allowing one parent to board with all three children. The other parent and the grandmother were refused.”
Southwest’s statement goes on to say that the flight crew worked to save seats together on the plane for the family.
But Southwest Airlines’ boarding policy posted online specifies that “(A)n adult traveling with a child six years old or younger may board during Family Boarding.”
All children traveling with Morse were younger than 6 and had the hyphenated last name of their parents on their tickets, Morse said.
“All they’re trying to do is covering their rear for discrimination,” he said. “It’s just infuriating me more.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Morse said, he had not heard from Southwest. He filed a complaint with the airline and the Federal Aviation Administration after their flight.
Morse said he wants a formal, written apology from the airline, for the supervisor to be reprimanded and the gate agent to be fired to prevent future cases of discrimination.
“The minute we walked up there, she profiled us,” he said. “If it’s not discrimination, what is it?”
He said he has not ruled out legal action and would donate any money potentially awarded in a lawsuit to a charity that educates on discrimination.
Morse said he has flown with Southwest Airlines at least a dozen times over the past three years. The family has never had a problem boarding together until Saturday, he said.
“Never an issue,” Morse said. “Not one agent has ever even questioned it.”
The episode drove him to tears even days afterward.
“It broke my heart,” Morse said. “My little daughter at five said, ‘Papa, why won’t they let us board the aircraft?'”