Southwest Airlines is famous for occasionally and removing folks from flights for questionable reasons: being too fat, too gay, too weepy, too Muslim. Even your boobs might pose a problem. Now a private school principal tells us that she wasn't permitted to board a flight because an employee told her she was wasted, even though she says was completely sober — and has the documentation to prove it. This time, however, Southwest's defense goes beyond one employee's discretion.
Last weekend, Erinn Chioma, the principal of a Wilmington, Delaware area private school, enjoyed a lovely mother/daughter excursion with her 15-year-old daughter, three of her colleagues and their daughters at the Essence music festival in New Orleans. On the evening of Monday, July 9th, the group departed New Orleans and headed home, arriving for a layover in Houston about an hour later. Southwest is the "official" airline of the Essence festival, so Chioma wasn't surprised to find the terminal more crowded than she had ever seen it before; the final leg of the group's flight back home was delayed for an additional 20 minutes. Chioma says she took that time to charge her phone, use the bathroom and buy a beer along with her coworker at Buffalo Wild Wings, which she took with her to the boarding gate in a clear plastic cup.
Back at the gate, Chioma says she noticed that the employees seemed "frustrated" about having to deal with the last minute gate changes and standby issues. When she approached the counter to inquire about the status of her flight, a customer service representative told Chioma that her flight would board in ten minutes but that Chioma would not be on it because she was too drunk to fly.
"I initially thought she was joking, as I was not drunk or under the influence of any substances," Chioma said. She told her daughter and colleagues to go ahead and board the plane — assuming that the situation would clear up as soon as she made it clear that she wasn't wasted — and offered to recite the Gettysburg address or to say the alphabet backwards to prove that she was sober. In response, the Southwest employee asked Chioma if she was on medication. Chioma told her she took pills for ADHD, and the rep told her she shouldn't have mixed medication with alcohol — a fact she knew, the rep said, because her son has ADHD. (Okay, thanks, Doc.)
The employee gave Chioma a partial Hilton hotel voucher (she still had to pay $59.99) and asked if she wanted to call the police. Definitely, Chioma said. But, according to Chioma, the police officer who arrived at the scene told her the airline had the right to refuse service to passengers and, even though he could tell she wasn't drunk, he couldn't give her a breathalyzer because they're only used in traffic situations. An observer urged Chioma to go to a nearby hospital and get a toxicology test to prove her sobriety. Chimoa's daughter got off the plane and joined her mother, and they went to the hospital for a toxicology test — Chioma had a point to prove. As you can see from the photo of the report, provided to us by Chioma, her blood alcohol level was <.003 only a few hours after the incident, meaning that she was sober — and even if her blood alcohol level was higher at the gate and had dropped during the time between the incident and the test, it's unlikely to have dropped by a factor of, say, 20.
Chioma told us that she's racked her brain trying to figure out why she was publicly singled out and is convinced that it's because Southwest couldn't handle the extra business from the festival and had to come up with some way to get people off the flight — since she was limping due to leg pain and had a cup of beer in her hand, she was an easy target. "I felt so disempowered; as a patron, customer, and a citizen," Chioma said. "I just couldn't believe this mistreatment could be legal."
However, Southwest spokesperson Brad Hawkins told us a completely different story. According to Hawkins, four different employees, including the captain himself, observed the incident and decided together based on the fact that Chioma was stumbling, slurring her speech, and continuously drinking from her beer as the conversation heated up that it would be best to rebook Chioma's flight. Plus, the flight took off half empty, so it wasn't a matter of bumping Chioma to free up some seats.
"We're sorry to hear about her description of her experience, but Federal Aviation Regulations prohibit Southwest from transporting any customer who appears to be intoxicated," Hawkins said. "We stand by our employees' decisions."
When we asked Chioma about Southwest's allegations, she said she only continued to drink her beer because she wasn't taking the situation seriously. "I was on a mother/daughter trip with my colleagues and my fifteen-year-old daughter," Chioma said. "I'm a principal. I was so obviously not drunk, so I thought it was a joke. I just didn't believe it." She added that she did think it was odd at first that she was allowed to walk up to the gate, located directly across the way from the bar, with an open container of beer, but she figured it was okay since the bartender had willingly offered her the plastic cup.
We recently published a history of Southwest's irrational reasons for kicking people off flights and/or prohibiting them from boarding after the airline told a passenger that her cleavage wasn't "family friendly" enough. Judging from the airline's lackluster responses in the past, it's always seemed as if it's up to the moral whims of each individual Southwest employee to decide whether a person is respectable enough to fly. And while this specific incident sounds more like a rational misunderstanding, it's worth noting that the decision was not a last-minute call made by someone at the gate. We can't say whether or not it was the right call, but it was based on the opinions of multiple airline representatives, including the pilot. That, at the very least, suggests that Southwest may finally be taking the ongoing criticism of their policies a little more seriously.