Working for Justice

Love (or “LUV”) in the Air… Some History on Discrimination in the Airline Industry

Posted February 18th, 2015 by in Employment Discrimination.

In a belated celebration of Valentine’s Day, I want to tell a love story. But don’t worry, this won’t get mawkish. This is a story of modern love, of commercial love, of a four-letter (sometimes, three-letter) slogan (“love” or “LUV”) perverted to discriminatory ends.

(This also an aviation tale, and if you haven’t read my colleague Russell Kornblith’s recent post on the gender gap in the skies, check it out here.)

In this season of bouquets and chocolates, the cynics may say that all businesses try to profit off love. But one company, an airline, has excelled at employing love for commercial purposes—and it has done so in a very particular way.

Southwest Airlines explains on its website:

Southwest has been in LUV with our Customers from the very beginning. Therefore, it’s fitting that we began service to San Antonio and Houston from Love Field in Dallas on June 18, 1971…  With the prettiest Flight Attendants serving “Love Bites” on our planes, and determined Employees issuing tickets from our “Love Machines,” we changed the face of the airline industry throughout the 1970s. Then in 1977, our stock was listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “LUV.”

What Southwest fails to mention in this brief homage is that glory days of the 1970s soon became the court battles of the 1980s. It turns out that “the Prett[y]Flight Attendants serving ‘Love Bites’” were all women. In fact, during approximately its first decade of operations, Southwest “refuse[d] to hire males” as flight attendant or ticket agents. Wilson v. Southwest Airlines Co., 517 F. Supp. 292, 293 n. 1 (N.D. Tex. 1981). In the early ‘80s, when a group of over 100 male job applicants sued Southwest for refusing to hire them, the company argued, “ femininity, or more accurately female sex appeal, [was] a bona fide occupational qualification . . . for the jobs of flight attendant and ticket agent.” Id.at 293. According to the company, “attractive female flight attendants and ticket agents personif[ied] the airline’s sexy image and fulfill[ed] its public promise to take passengers skyward with ‘love.’” Id.

Long story short—the Airline lost. Judge Patrick Higginbotham (now a Senior Judge on the Fifth Circuit) rejected Southwest’s argument that a stereotypical notion of sex appeal could serve as a bona fide occupational qualification for the jobs of flight attendants and ticket agents. Southwest and the plaintiffs eventually settled.

To those familiar with the airline industry, the policies described in Wilson v. Southwest Airlines are hardly anomalous. Southwest was far from alone in its discriminatory hiring policies, and many airlines became early targets of gender discrimination lawsuits. Indeed, late last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission paid tribute to some of the path breaking female flight attendants who took on their employers in the 1960s and 1970s, challenging discrimination in pay and promotions, discriminatory weight requirements, and other discriminatory practices, such as policies of discharging female employees upon marriage.  Despite early victories for these pioneering female plaintiffs, some airlines still haven’t received the message. A recent Think Progress article points out that Qatar Airways, Asiana Airlines and Singapore Airlines (among others) still operate under discriminatory policies declared unlawful almost a generation ago.

So the next time you glance at the Southwest logo—that red heart flanked by wings—think about what “love” initially meant for that company and its industry. Think about the plaintiffs who challenged these discriminatory practices. Think about the airlines which still employ discriminatory policies.

It turns out this love story isn’t over yet. For it to end well, discrimination in airline industry must go.

David Tracey

David Tracey

David Tracey is a Senior Litigation Counsel in the New York office of Sanford Heisler Sharp who works primarily on discrimination and wage and hour cases. Learn More

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