Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

Orange County supervisors made it clear Tuesday they expect airlines doing business at John Wayne Airport to comply with federal law prohibiting discrimination, following a complaint from a woman who said United Airlines rearranged her seat assignment at the request of two monks who objected to sitting next to a woman based on religious beliefs.

The supervisors directed staff to add language to the county’s contracts with carriers that operate at JWA that includes all of the classes protected by federal law and to also put on hold passenger load allocations for the airlines.

At its Oct. 25 meeting, the board will get an update on renegotiated contracts and consider passenger load allocations for the airlines.

Board Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett said that over the weekend, she spoke with her constituent, Mary Campos of Coto de Caza, who lodged the complaint against United.

“I wanted to hear her story directly,” Bartlett said.

Campos was due to fly on a fully booked flight when she was summoned to the reservation desk. She was told that her seat assignment was switched to an adjacent row because “there were two monks who had preferences to not be touched or seated by a female,” Bartlett said. “So, she was very upset and she had an absolute right to be upset.”

Bartlett said even the flight attendant staff assignments were changed so men would serve the monks on the flight.

“What would happen if you had an all-female flight attendant crew?” Bartlett asked. “What if there were female pilots and co-pilots? This goes way beyond discrimination of passengers. We’re talking about personnel on the flights.”

The county’s contracts with airlines do include prohibitions against discrimination, but not all of the classes of people covered by federal law, so Supervisor Michelle Steel moved to include all of the federal law’s protected classes in the county’s contracts.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who put the issue on Tuesday’s agenda, said he wanted officials to research what “remedies” the county has if the airlines do not accept updated contracts.

“We don’t need contracts to tell people to follow the law,” Nelson said. “Of course they’re supposed to follow the law… People can file their own lawsuits, class actions. What remedy do we have if they choose to ignore the law? They know what the law is.”

Orange County Counsel Leon Page told the board that a violation of federal discrimination laws would amount to a “material breach” of the county’s contract with an airline, authorizing the county to terminate the lease and to file suit.

Nelson said he wanted assurances the county would be indemnified if there were a material breach of contract due to discrimination against a protected class of people.

“I don’t think the contract goes far enough,” Nelson said. “I don’t want the county in the middle of a lawsuit if somebody else’s bad behavior causes a bunch of tickets to be canceled.”

Supervisor Todd Spitzer asked Airport Director Barry Rondinella why the county has been approving month-to-month passenger allocations with airlines since last year.

“A few things were set aside” until Rondinella succeeded the prior airport director, he said. “Those things were queued up and we are working through them. We have been negotiating those contracts for several months.”

Spitzer pushed Rondinella to get the contracts renegotiated with the new language banning all discrimination within the next two weeks. Rondinella said he did not think his agency could meet that deadline, but would work hard on it.

“They will be incredibly motivated to execute these contracts,” Spitzer said. “We’re not asking for a complete rewrite. I don’t want to be accused of holding up the allocations because we’re trying to comply with federal law… We need to get these executed forthwith.”

United Airlines officials issued a statement on the issue:

“We have reached out to Ms. Campos to discuss her concerns. Our goal is to provide safe and comfortable travel for all of our customers and we regret that Ms. Campos was unhappy with the handling of the seat assignments on her flight. United holds our employees to the highest standards of professionalism and has zero tolerance for discrimination.”

Steel said she did not think the airline intentionally meant to discriminate against Campos.

“I think United tries to accommodate its passengers as best as possible and that’s what United did,” Steel said.

She said that when she flew regularly as a member of the state Board of Equalization, she would switch seats if someone asked.

“When people don’t want to sit next to me, I want to know because I don’t want to sit next to someone who doesn’t want to sit with me for two or three hours,” Steel said.

City News Service 

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