January 23, 2014 at 5:55 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
TSA changes airport security for gay couples
César Zapata, Hunter Carter, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, César Zapata and Hunter Carter said American Airlines personnel at the Medellín, Colombia, airport separated them on Jan. 18 as they checked into their flight to Miami. (Photo courtesy of César Zapata)

The Washington Blade has learned the Transportation Security Administration will allow same-sex couples to undergo pre-flight security screenings together in response to two recent incidents with American Airlines personnel at a Colombian airport.

Hunter Carter, a prominent same-sex marriage advocate in Latin America who said American Airlines personnel at the airport in the Colombian city of Medellín separated him and his husband, César Zapata, as they tried to check into their Miami-bound flight on Jan. 18, received an e-mail from Alec Bramlett, senior litigation attorney for the airline, on Wednesday afternoon.

“TSA has communicated to our Corporate Security folks that they are working on a technical change to its directive, and that pending that change, we can immediately begin screening same-sex spouses together,” wrote Bramlett in the e-mail the Blade obtained from Carter. “We are working on communicating this change in procedures to our stations ASAP.”

A TSA spokesperson confirmed to the Blade on Thursday the agency is “working to make clear any confusion in language included in the Aircraft Operator Standard Security Program (ASOP) document” that dictates security screenings.

“TSA policy is for every attempt to be made to accommodate all families traveling together,” said the spokesperson.

Carter welcomed the announcement.

“It used to be that discrimination against same-sex couples who are LGBT people wasn’t newsworthy, but that has changed,” he told the Blade on Wednesday. “Today a major corporation and a government agency swiftly changed a legacy policy that was discriminatory and humiliating. Now when César and I fly we know we will not be flying as second-class passengers but on equal terms with all other married couples as is our legal right.”

Carter and Zapata are the second same-sex couple in less than two months to allege American Airlines personnel at the Medellín airport separated them as they tried to check into their U.S.-bound flight.

Ana Elisa Leiderman said an American Airlines ticket agent separated her from her wife, Verónica Botero, and their two small children as they tried to check into their Miami-bound flight on Dec. 13. A third gay couple — Tomás Georgi and Mark Cline — told the Blade late on Wednesday they experienced a similar experience on Dec. 1 as they tried to check into their American Airlines flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to New York.

“I was told to get back to the end of the line when I protested,” said Georgi. “As a native of Argentina, I was fully able to discern the distain and anti-gay sentiment with which I was treated.”

Georgi told the Blade another gate agent whom he asked to allow him to board his flight with his partner “dismissed” him “callously.”

“Not until I insisted again and drew the attention of the 100 or so fellow passengers was I permitted to join my partner who was waiting for me on the jet way after being physically separated from me and searched,” said Georgi. “The staff, which had originally prohibited me from joining my partner, hurled snide remarks at me as I walked past them to join him.”

An American Airlines spokesperson told the Blade on Jan. 10 the company regrets “the circumstances” that Leiderman “faced with her spouse and family” while traveling from Colombia to the U.S. The spokesperson added airport personnel in Medellín “followed existing security screening rules mandated by the” TSA.

Georgi provided the Blade an e-mail he received from Stefania Meyer of American Airlines on Dec. 16 that noted, among other things, the company has received a 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for nine consecutive years. The letter also said the men would each receive a $96 refund for seat upgrades they purchased for their flight from Argentina.

“Our customers should always experience polite and efficient service from our employees, regardless of the circumstances,” wrote Meyer. “Your comments regarding the lack of professionalism on the part of our gate staff is of significant concern to us. Please accept our apologies for the poor agent demeanor and other problems you and Mr. Cline encountered that day.”

The letter made no mention of TSA security screening policy. Georgi said American Airlines Director of Customer Relations Tim Rhodes “dismissed my complaints as the fault of TSA and took no responsibility” for the alleged incident during a telephone call he said he received from him on Jan. 6.

“What I cannot get over is the reaction of the head of customer service,” Georgi told the Blade. “He explained to me that it is difficult to read peoples’ intentions. However, I speak Spanish fluently, I was born in [Buenos Aires,] I could read the intentions of the American Airlines staff very clearly, especially when I was told to go to the back of the line.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

  • This is nice, but it shows how easily the gay community is bought off by allowing it equal treatment, political appointments, etc. In abusive and failed government programs. We are supposed to feel good even though The TSA, NSA, etc. etc. are violating the Bill of Rights. As long as they do it to everyone in the same way. And then the mainstream gay rights groups, whose executive directors simply want jobs as political appointees, sell this to us as progress, while evading the deeper issues.

  • I’m no libertarian, but I agree with everything Bruce P. Majors wrote. The TSA — and the entire national security apparatus — is a bipartisan abomination and a violation of the Bill of Rights. Just because the goons of the TSA might say “please” or “thank you” isn’t progress. They’re still assaulting you.

  • Since this occurred in Colombia, and TSA doesn't manage screening in any country other than the USA, how is it that TSA is being blamed? Or was I not supposed to notice that?

  • TSA has rules for flights coming to the U.S.

  • True, the TSA sets the standards for screening for flights destined to the US. We don't force people to go down separate lines in the US, why would we do it in another country? By the way, in the US the airlines are in charge of the queues up to the point where your ID and boarding pass is checked. Your status as a first class or business class or coach passenger may determine which line you are guided to. In the US if you are PreCheck eligible you may be guided to the PreCheck lane. It often happens that one member of a couple is PreCheck and one is not, in that case the one who is PreCheck may opt to go through the standard screening lane with his/her partner. I don’t know if they have PreCheck lanes in other countries.
    In all the incidents reported in the article, it was airline personnel who were separating the couples. The airlines claims it was because of TSA guidelines. There is no TSA guideline, however that directs airline personnel to be rude or callous in their treatment of gay passengers. The TSA spokesperson’s comment would indicate that the airlines in question have misunderstood the guidelines, offering that it is “working to make clear any confusion in language”.
    The story here doesn’t really say why the two were separated, but it does state quite clearly that is was airline personnel who made the decision to separate them. It seems to me like this is just another opportunity for the press to blame TSA for a bad decision by one of its “partners”. And what a plus for being able to cloak the whole story as anti-gay, inferring that TSA has an anti-gay agenda. Let’s put the blame where the blame belongs. This is obviously a case of American Airlines goofing, and trying to deflect blame to the TSA.

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