By Soo Youn
On Friday, Jenny Grondahl flew from Phoenix to San Diego, carrying a souvenir: a cardboard sign she wanted to frame when she got home to Southern California. It read “Arizonenses Con Biden” with a cactus and was made by an artist named Javier Torres.
It marked an accomplishment for the labor organizer — outreach to Latinos in Arizona to vote for Joe Biden for president in 2020. Grondahl serves on the executive board of Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), representing workers in California and Arizona. She also volunteered for the Biden campaign, and a friend had given her the sign for the hours she worked.
“I worked very hard to register Latino voters. … And Latinos showed up, Arizona went blue,” she said, explaining why it meant so much to her.
When she got to the gate, Grondahl said, a Southwest Airlines employee told her, “Many customers are offended by your sign.” The agent asked her to either cover it with white paper and tape or to fold it to put underneath her seat.
Then Grondahl asked what would have happened if she had been wearing a T-shirt supporting Biden and Vice President Harris. The agent told her that she would have had to turn it inside out to board the flight.
Instead of covering up the sign, Grondahl folded it and placed it under her seat.
As Americans return to the skies during the pandemic, they are facing unruliness among fellow passengers. Flight attendants are getting the worst of it as passengers become violent and refuse mask mandates.
But fliers may also be reminded of other disruptions: the arbitrary power over passenger dress code and what they can bring onboard. Airlines have long been able to enforce this, but in this political climate, it could include signage and other memorabilia.
“I’m looking around at the gate, and I’m thinking, how many of you was it — 20 out of 110 people? And how offended were you? What did you say?” she told The Washington Post several days after the incident. “How could people have such a visceral reaction to seeing the name of our president on a sign?”
She found herself physically shaking at the confrontation, despite the fact that she said the gate agent was “very nice.”
Grondahl would have understood had she been told the sign was too big, or if she had been actively campaigning, but she said that’s not what she was told by the airline.
“It’s in Spanish. I just looked around, and I thought about humanity in general. How devastatingly horrible that someone saw a name, or a different language, on a sign that I’m carrying, and stood in line to complain to the airline staff to the point that they then had to come complain to me, and asked me not to bring this on board?” Grondahl said.
Southwest would not comment directly on the situation, but the airline denied it would censor political expression.
“We pride ourselves on providing a welcoming, comfortable, and safe environment for all Customers and Employees regardless of political beliefs. We’re in conversations with the Customer to address her concerns and we hope to welcome her back on a future Southwest flight,” Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said in email.
Grondahl tweeted at Southwest about the incident on Monday, but she did not hear from airline until after The Washington Post contacted the company for comment. So far, they only have reached out to say they have heard about her complaint.
Legal experts said the incident was probably a one-off that occurred because decisions about what customers can bring or wear onboard are at the discretion of individual employees.
Each airline has a contract of carriage, which you agree to when you purchase a ticket, but it can be ambiguous. Delta says it can keep a passenger off a plane if their attire “creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers.” Southwest and JetBlue say clothing cannot be “lewd, obscene, or patently offensive.”
“I just think [Grondahl] ran into a buzz saw with a flight attendant, who was trying to placate some unhappy people,” said Tom Demetrio, a Chicago-based lawyer who represented David Dao, a passenger who was dragged off a United Airlines flight in 2017.
Since that case, Demetrio said, he has received over 1,000 complaints centered around the actions of either a flight attendant or gate agent.
“One-hundred percent of the time they are backed up by the pilot, who has the ultimate say,” Demetrio said. “If you have an issue where a flight attendant is questioning you or making fun of you, play along because he wins or she wins. No use in quibbling or protesting.”
“What if it’s a Chicago Cubs shirt, and you’ve got a bunch of Yankee fans on the plane, are they going to whine to the flight attendant? Make him turn his shirt inside out?”
In 2012, a woman was who worked for an abortion provider was asked to cover her T-shirt on an American Airlines flight. An American Airlines spokesman said the flier was asked to cover up because the shirt contained an expletive.
Later that year, graduate student Arijit Guha was taken off a Delta flight in Buffalo because his T-shirt said, “Terrists gonna kill us all.” He said the misspelled shirt was satirical and mocked federal screening policies that he said racially profiled. The pilot countered that it scared fellow passengers.
Again, there is little passengers can do because rules can be interpreted unevenly.
“[Contracts of carriage] are written in broad language that makes these determinations particularly subjective, so that one person’s behavior or clothing on one flight may not be considered offensive on another,” travel lawyer Adam Anolik said.
That turned out to be true for Grondahl, who flew from Orange County in California back to Phoenix just four days later on Southwest. She didn’t have the sign, but she wore a “LIUNA! For Biden/Harris” mask on her flight without incident.
These guidelines are often justified for safety reasons, Anolik said. “Airlines can claim offensive attire or behavior can cause conflicts on board so that the airlines need to police problems before they escalate.”
Flight attendants and crews have dealt with a spike in disruptive passenger behavior recently. Since January, the Federal Aviation Administration has received 3,715 reports of unruly passengers. The FAA has started 628 investigations and moved forward with 99 cases with penalties. There have been incidents involving flight attendants being punched, losing teeth and having to restrain passengers with duct tape.
The problem with leaving such interpretations on dress code or carry-on items up to individual airline employees is that they are “susceptible to inherent biases of employees, which may be, in this situation, politically motivated. Airlines should not be policing political speech,” Anolik said.
Several days later, Grondahl’s sign was in her office waiting to be framed, despite the folds.
“It will have a crease in it to remind me of Southwest Airlines approaching me to say people were offended by it,” Grondahl said, laughing.
This article originally appeared on Washington Post