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Fair wars

Fair wars


When Northwest Airlines told a gay man he couldn't redeem a free plane ticket for his domestic partner, the ACLU cried discrimination. In the following riposte, Northwest explains how Air New Zealand's policies--not their own--ignited the controversy.

At a holiday office party, 60-year-old Air New Zealand employee Rob Anders was lucky enough to win a prize: two Northwest Airlines tickets. As a California resident, Anders thought he'd have no trouble redeeming the second seat for his longtime male partner. Instead, Anders was told Northwest would only recognize a spouse, another airline employee, or a dependent child as a companion, prompting hurt and outrage on Anders's part. Soon after, the American Civil Liberties Union accused Northwest of violating California's antidiscrimination laws and irate letters bombarded the airline's offices. According to a response from Northwest to one of those angry fliers--forwarded to on February 15 and included below--the brouhaha was an enormous misunderstanding based on industry reciprocity agreements, and if anyone is to be accused of bias, it should be Air New Zealand.

Dear [name withheld],

RE: Case Number 2070862

Thank you for your correspondence regarding allegations lodged against Northwest Airlines, Inc. by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about an airline employee pass provided to an Air New Zealand employee. I would like to assure you those allegations are false. The ACLU never contacted Northwest to understand the facts before issuing its press release or putting its version of the events on its website. Northwest believes the ACLU's actions in this matter have been highly irresponsible. If they had only asked Northwest about the matter in question, we could have cleared it up without being subjected to these false allegations.

You should understand that Northwest Airlines offers the same employee benefits and travel privileges to its employees' domestic partners as it does to employees' spouses, including benefits and privileges that extend to domestic partners' children. Northwest does not discriminate against domestic partners and is fully compliant with California's employee discrimination laws.

The issue underlying the ACLU's false accusations involves a unique travel benefit shared by most airline employees. Many airlines provide employees of other airlines the privilege of traveling on a space-available basis at a significantly reduced rate.

In other words, for a nominal fee airline employees are permitted to fly on another carrier when the carrier has vacant seats. This is referred to within the airline industry as interline or non-revenue travel.

Interline travel privileges typically are not uniform. Some airlines permit the employee, the employee's spouse or domestic partner, the employee's children, and even the employee's parents to travel on this space available, reduced rate basis. Other airlines may limit the privilege to the employee or to the employee and spouse. Some airlines do not offer travel privileges to domestic partners.

Northwest's policy is to only offer travel privileges to other airline employees to the same extent that the other airline offers travel privileges to Northwest employees. In other words, we require reciprocity. If the other airline does not permit our employees' domestic partners (or parents, children or any other class) to travel on their airline, Northwest does not permit the other airlines' employees' domestic partners to travel on Northwest. This is not a matter of unlawful discrimination, but one of fairness. It would not be fair to offer other airline employees privileges that the other airline does not offer to our own employees.

When Northwest extended travel privileges to domestic partners, it reached out to all airlines it had interline agreements with and asked them to sign a new interline agreement that granted mutual interline privileges to employees' domestic partners. Many airlines signed the new interline agreements and we currently extend interline privileges to those carriers' employees and their domestic partners. Other carriers did not sign the new agreements.

In August 2000, Northwest sent Air New Zealand a letter requesting them to sign the new interline agreement. Air New Zealand never responded to Northwest's letter, and since that time neither airline has permitted the other's employees' domestic partners to travel on an interline basis. Northwest has always been willing to offer such privileges to Air New Zealand employees and their domestic partners, but only if Air New Zealand were willing to offer such privileges to our employees' domestic partners.

The airline employee involved in the ACLU's press release, a Mr. Robert Anders, is an employee of Air New Zealand. He apparently won an interline pass from Northwest Airlines as a prize at an Air New Zealand holiday party. Unlike typical interline travel, the pass won by Mr. Anders was for travel without the nominal fee normally charged. It is not uncommon for Northwest to trade such no-fee interline passes with other airlines to be given away for employee celebrations or fundraising activities. In exchange for the pass that Northwest provided it received a similar pass to offer one of its employees for travel on Air New Zealand. These passes are subject to the terms and conditions of the interline agreement between Northwest and Air New Zealand.

When Mr. Anders contacted Northwest to use his newly won pass, he was informed that Northwest's interline agreement with Air New Zealand does not permit domestic partners to travel.

Northwest has since reviewed the pass letter Mr. Anders received and concluded that, while intended to be subject to the interline agreement, it is not clearly stated on the letter. Consequently, Northwest has decided to permit Mr. Anders and his domestic partner to use the pass.

We apologize to him and his partner and we hope they will understand how and why the incident arose. Northwest will also reiterate its proposal to Air New Zealand to sign the interline agreement that permits mutual travel privileges for our respective employees and their domestic partners.

We want to reiterate that Northwest offers equal benefits and travel privileges to employees' domestic partners and does not discriminate on the basis of the employees' sexual orientation.


Marci Stuart Customer Care Northwest/KLM Airlines

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