Alaska Airlines Accused of Discrimination against Gay Couple

Alaska Airlines Accused of Discrimination against Gay Couple

David Cooley, a business owner from Los Angeles, reports that he and his travel companion (Note: this is the language that Cooley uses in his post, though he also says they are a couple) were discriminated against by Alaska Airlines.

From Cooley’s Facebook post:

I have never been so discriminated against while traveling before. I was removed from an Alaska Airlines flight # 1407 from John F. Kennedy International Airport to LAX to give preferential treatment to a straight couple. After my traveling companion and I had been seated in our assigned seats for a while, we were approached by the flight attendant and my companion was asked to move from his premium seat to coach, so a couple could sit together. I explained that we were a couple and wanted to sit together. He was given a choice to either give up the premium seat and move to coach or get off the plane. We could not bear the feeling of humiliation for an entire cross-country flight and left the plane. I cannot believe that an airline in this day and age would give a straight couple preferential treatment over a gay couple and go so far as to ask us to leave. We will never be flying Alaska Airlines or their recently purchased Virgin Airlines Group ever again. Thank you to Delta Air Lines for getting us home safe. If you are an #LGBT person, please spend your travel dollars with an LGBT friendly airline like Delta. The Advocate magazine Equality California GLAAD Delta Air Lines Out Magazine David Cooley

Alaska Airlines planes are set up in three sections: First Class, Premium Class, and Main Cabin.  However, As1407 is a former Virgin America plane, meaning that it is not reconfigured to the Alaska set up.  In the former Virgin America A320 planes, Row 3 (first row of Economy) and Rows 9 & 10 (Exit Rows) are the only Premium Class seats on the plane.  These seats have more leg room due to their location which is what makes them “Premium”.  The Airbus planes are all going to be reconfigured in the future to conform to the standard reconfigured Alaska Airlines Premium Class of Rows 6-10.

Based on Cooley’s post, he and his travel companion were in row 3, 9 or 10.

There have been multiple reports of strange upgrade behavior on former Virgin America planes.  Alaska is reporting that the system assigned two passengers to the seat.

Either way, Alaska made a mistake.  Either it was an innocent one (booked two people in the same seat, moved one person either based on policy or at flight attendant’s discretion) or it really was a rogue flight attendant.

My Best Guess

In my hundreds of Alaska Airlines flights, I have never witnessed a passenger forced to move in order to reseat someone based on a request to be near a family member.  I have experienced the airlines to ask for volunteers to move seats in order to put families together (small child with parent for example), but I have never heard “switch or get off the plane”.

Alaska and Virgin America both have a well known reputation as being inclusive of the LGBTQ community.  Though that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to have an employee with certain prejudices.

This makes me to conclude that Alaska’s statement, that the seat was double booked, is accurate.  In the same breath, I will admit that I am not unbiased; if you read my website you know I am a big fan of Alaska Airlines.

Now, why was the passenger already in the seat asked to move (assuming he was actually ticketed for that seat)?  It is hard to know.  If I had to guess, it would be that there was an upgrade error and when the tickets were checked, it was decided that the second passenger was supposed to get the upgrade, not Cooley’s companion.


If (and that’s a big IF) there was no clear policy about which passenger should receive the seat, and Cooley’s companion was picked by the flight attendant to move because the other passenger wanted to sit by their partner, then I would have a problem with that.  But the problem I have with the situation may not be what you think.

My problem would be any airline forcing any passenger to move so that a couple can sit together.

I am single (as you probably guess from my website name) and travel a ton by myself.  I have no problem with couples sitting together if they reserved seats next to each other.  But asking me to give up a seat just because I am traveling solo is not okay.  If I picked a seat, I probably did so for a reason.  I want the aisle, I like where it is on the plane, etc.  You can feel free to ask me to move, but likely my response will be no, since I picked the seat for a reason.  And you will then need to move on, no hard feelings.

If a flight attendant ever forced me to move so that a couple could sit together, especially if I was ticketed in a premium seat, you can bet I would be unhappy.

In this circumstance…

  • If the flight attendant picked the straight couple to get to sit next to each other instead of a same-sex couple keeping the seat, that is horrible.
  • If the flight attendant picked the straight couple to get to sit next to each other instead of (who they thought was) a single person keeping the seat, that is also bad.

Either way in this scenario, the blame falls on both the flight attendant and Alaska as a company.


In the end, assuming that Cooley and his companion were in their ticketed seats, and one of the seats was incorrectly reserved for two different passengers, Alaska should have let whoever was in the seat (Cooley’s companion) stay in the seat unless they have a clear policy that stated what to do in this situation (based on who was assigned the seat first, for example).  I don’t think travel companions should be brought into the equation at all (unless extreme circumstance like a disabled companion).

What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Alaska Airlines Accused of Discrimination against Gay Couple”

  1. That’s a wonderfully nuanced breakdown of what may have happened in the Cooley incident. With Alaska Air’s unambiguous apology and Cooley’s unqualified acceptance of it, do you think we’ll ever know exactly what transpired? My suspicion is “no”, and that’s too bad. Flyers should know what really happens in situations like these. Incidentally, I just discovered your site and look forward to visiting often. We don’t get to travel much so I enjoy the thrills of international travel vicariously. Keep it up!

    • Thank you, Sam, for your comment and I appreciate your feedback. Please keep reading and let me know if there is anything you like or dislike or want to see more of.

  2. I used to work for a contract company that provides the ground operations (including ticket counter and gate operations) for Alaska Airlines, and I can tell you that part of your theory is extremely possible, and part of it is absolutely not.

    It is possible that the wrong passenger was given an upgrade, but the airline stated that it was a full flight, so upgrades are not likely. If this had occurred, it is (or was at the time I was there) Alaska’s policy to leave the incorrect guest in the upgraded seat, and offer compensation to the guest who should have received it; they’re not in the practice of retracting an upgrade from a paying passenger.

    If the flight was oversold, and not just full, the computer tells the agent exactly who to remove based on a series of pre-defined criteria that may depend on the class of ticket booked (or awarded like the credit card companion fare). In this instance, and any instance in which Cooley was asked to come off the plane and refused, he is in violation of Federal regulations and can now be refused travel simply based on his refusal to cooperate. This is the only time I could imagine a “move seats or get off the plane” ultimatum. Further refusing would result in police intervention (you remember the doctor who was violently removed from a united flight, right?).

    I know the Airbus flights are (or were) boarded with different software than all other Alaska flights, but the other Alaska flight software (called IMAGE) is very finicky and absolutely would not allow two passengers to occupy the same seat, upgrade or not.

    The way I see it, it’s extremely likely that Cooley’s story is incomplete and the airlines alleged discrimination was in response to his refusal to cooperate.

    • Hi Jordan, thank you for your comment. The inner-workings of airline software is a complete mystery to me, so I appreciate your shared insight.

  3. I am a single person who travels frequently for business and personal travel and always on my own. It’s rare that I travel out of the same airport with my friends. I have been moved SO MANY DAMN TIMES to accommodate families who book tickets using discount travel sites because it is less expensive, but then have to reconfigure the airplane to get three people in seats together.

    The last time it happened they said it was so that a child could sit with her parent. Fine. But that wasn’t actually the case. It was to sit the whole family together, which meant moving dad from his middle seat.

    I was not asked. I was told. Had I been asked I would have absolutely said no. Instead, I went from a window seat in the front of the plane to – you guessed it – a middle seat towards the back.

    Single people are constantly moved to accommodate couples.

    • Wow! Can you share what airline?

      I have never been moved without my permission. And especially not from a window (or aisle) to a middle seat. I would NOT have been happy. Hopefully they at least brought you a complimentary alcoholic beverage!


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