By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/14/2008 8:47:42 AM ET 2008-01-14T13:47:42

Kathleen Anderson was the only woman in business class on a recent Northwest Airlines flight from Düsseldorf, Germany, to Chicago. And it cost her.

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A flight attendant waited until she had taken all the other meal orders before asking Anderson what she wanted for dinner. By then, only one entrée choice was available. Later, the same attendant offered her mixed nuts in a shotglass, while the men were given their snacks in a larger bowl. “I sat there wondering, ‘Is this the way women are normally treated in World Business Class on Northwest?’” she remembers.

When Anderson tried to use the lavatory and struggled to open the door, the attendant snapped, delivering what she describes as a “nasty” lecture about how to operate the door. The entire experience made her feel like a second-class citizen. “I was blatantly discriminated against and treated unfairly on the flight,” she says.

Travel and discrimination have practically been synonymous since 9/11. As a group, travelers seem to condone some of it, as long as it prevents the next terrorist attack. But Anderson’s experience is part of a related — and largely unreported — trend. The toxin of discrimination appears to have spread to other parts of the travel industry that have nothing to do with protecting the nation’s transportation infrastructure. For some passengers and hotel guests, it’s as if the clock has been turned back to pre-1994 South Africa or America before the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

Northwest Airlines responded to Anderson’s complaint with a letter saying that it recognized her “dissatisfaction” and promising to take appropriate disciplinary action against the flight attendant. It offered her a $150 voucher for future travel, she says. The airline called her encounter an “isolated incident.”

There are no reliable surveys on discrimination of travelers. The U.S. Department of Transportation registers complaints by air travelers, and there’s a category for “discrimination” but the number is thought to be kept artificially low because carriers can contest the complaint and have it removed from their record, and because passengers are too embarrassed or upset to file a complaint. But a review of my case files — I write the weekly syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column and am National Geographic Traveler’s ombudsman — leaves little doubt that travelers now face discrimination at almost every turn. For example:

  • On a recent flight to Mexico, LaVeeda Garlington was surprised when a gate agent replaced her front-of-the-cabin aisle seat assignment with middle seat in the last row of the plane. She later struck up a conversation with a flight attendant, who said she had seen a pattern. “She told me that she had noticed that on her flights, most African American and Hispanic passengers seemed to always have seats at the rear of the plane,” she remembers. “I was livid.”
  • Another passenger had the audacity to ask a flight attendant if he could move to an aisle seat after the cabin doors had closed but before the plane had pushed back from the gate. The attendant’s response was to tell him he “looked like trouble” and to have him removed from the flight. The passenger was black.
  • A Mount Laurel, N.J., woman contacted me several months ago after flying from Stuttgart, Germany, to Barcelona. A gate agent stopped her and demanded she pay a 70 euro excess luggage fee. “When I told her that was so expensive, she started shouting at me that I should have read the weight requirements on the Internet,” she says. “I didn’t have access to the Internet.” She noticed that none of the other passengers with oversize luggage were being stopped — only her, the American. In the end, she threw some of her clothes away to lighten her luggage. But only after being screamed at and threatened with deportation.

Before you airline apologists out there rush to the defense of your employers, I’ll give you two things. First, there’s another side to these stories — there always is — which may well exonerate the carriers. The point is not that they are practicing discrimination, at least in the legal sense. It’s that passengers feel as if they are being discriminated against.

And second, these problems are by no means confined to the airline industry. Car rental employees routinely discriminate against foreign customers by telling them it is illegal to rent a vehicle in the United States without buying pricey collision damage insurance, even though there is no such law. They also discriminate against young drivers. Don’t believe me? Try to rent a car if you’re under 25.

Hotels have “separate but equal” policies, too. Some of it is done with the best of intentions. Earlier this year, for instance, a new Marriott hotel in Grand Rapids, Mich., said it would set aside an entire floor for women only . Smokers are also a new sub-class. “I have been offered some of the worst rooms in a hotel because I’ve asked if they have any rooms in which they allow smoking,” says Cliff Ruddick, who works for a college in Carson, Calif.

One business traveler who is often on the road with his same-sex partner told me he’s often asked at check-in, “Are you sure you want just one bed in the room?” But the worst offenders by far seem to be the airlines. “On a plane, rarely have we done anything more than hold hands, which has spurred flight attendant reactions ranging from raised-eyebrows to requests that we stop our ‘immoral’ behavior,” he says.

Most kinds of discrimination start with ideas that appear to be honorable on the surface. If protecting our nation’s transportation systems meant putting anyone with an Arab surname on a watchlist, that seemed reasonable to some of us. But I think it’s given us a broad license to become as intolerant and small-minded as the people we call the enemy.

What to do about it? It’s simple, really — as simple as speaking up when you see it. Not just telling the ticket agent or hotel employee that you think they’re out of line, but reporting their behavior to the federal government. Only 11 people bothered to write to the Transportation Department to complain about discrimination in October 2007, the last month for which numbers are available.

Remain silent, and the next victim could be you.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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