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What happened on Flight 45? The couple at the heart of the controversy tell their story.

As veteran travelers, Stephan Varnier, 34, and George Tsikhiseli, 29, were baffled when they were singled out by a flight attendant on an August 22 Paris--New York City American Airlines flight and told to stop touching.

"I had my head on George's shoulder and we were talking quietly," says Varnier. "He would lightly kiss me on the forehead or the lips--it was definitely not a make-out session." They complained about the flight attendant; the discussion escalated. Soon the captain was telling Tsikhiseli that if they didn't drop the matter, the flight would be diverted and they would be escorted off the plane. "One of the passengers sitting near us used the word 'surreal,' and that is exactly what it was," says Varnier. "It just got worse and worse."

After conducting an internal investigation, American Airlines concluded that the crew acted reasonably. "Basically, the gentlemen were a little too amorous," says company spokeswoman Mary Sanderson. "Based on a customer request, a flight attendant tried to discreetly intervene, which didn't work real well. At the end of the day, we have to address the needs of all our passengers, so it was decided that if they couldn't settle down, the crew would have to consider taking further action." Both American Airlines' LGBT employee group and the Human Rights Campaign's Workplace Project released statements supporting the airline, which has a strong track record on LGBT issues. And in the wake of the incident American Airlines has pledged to further its commitment to train employees to be sensitive to LGBT passengers [see statement below].

Varnier, a writer who, ironically, once worked as an American Airlines flight attendant, and Tsikhiseli, a Russian television journalist, have since hired an attorney. They spoke to The Advocate at Tsikhiseli's downtown Manhattan home.

How did the incident get started?

Varnier: George surprised me in Paris, where I was visiting family, and we arranged to be on the same flight back to New York. We were quite tired, so we just got in our seats and made ourselves comfortable. I was trying to get some sleep, but maybe 15 minutes after takeoff the flight attendant came to us and said, "The purser wants you to stop that." I asked her, "Stop what?" And she said the touching and the kissing.

Has anything like this ever happened to either of you before?

Tsikhiseli: Absolutely not. Varnier: No, we are the discreet kind.

Stephan, you actually worked for American Airlines.

Varnier: Yes, I was a flight attendant from 2000 to 2004. Even after I left, I still felt like part of the family, which made this whole thing feel that much worse. I was naively hoping for a personal apology, but they wouldn't even acknowledge the fact that I used to work for them.

How did it feel when you were told you were engaged in inappropriate behavior?

Varnier: The whole thing was very humiliating--you start to think, Did I act inappropriately? But the people around us kept telling us, "You didn't do anything wrong."

You were refused an apology or even an explanation?

Varnier: Basically, we were denied everything--our version of the story was nonexistent. They wouldn't tell us their names or employee numbers. We couldn't even get a representative to meet us at the gate. We had no rights whatsoever. Whatever we would say--Tsikhiseli: We were just wrong.

What happened once you landed?

Varnier: We sent letters; the other passengers who sat near us sent letters too. We did not get a response for the longest time--not until the article in The New Yorker came out, about three weeks later.

George, in making this story public you had to out yourself. Was that a difficult decision?

Tsikhiseli: Well, normally, you come out when you feel the time is right. But I knew we had to take this step because it was the right thing to do. Being Russian, I was kind of afraid of this situation, but my friends have supported me. Varnier: We didn't want this responsibility, but again, it's about doing the right thing.

So does this whole experience mean you'll never fly American Airlines again?

Varnier: Never say never. Tsikhiseli: I have nothing against the company. I have things against the situation. The situation was wrong, absolutely wrong.

For a longer version of this interview, visit Advocate.com.

AMERICAN AIRLINES RESPONDS

American Airlines is committed to treating all passengers with equal respect. To my knowledge, we have never barred a simple show of affection, nor do we ever wish to treat any couples differently.

Although there are clear inconsistencies among several witnesses about what actually took place on this flight, we sincerely understand the many concerns that were raised and regret the conflict. We certainly apologize for any hurtfulness that arose as a result.

However--to step up even more--we are planning to take positive and appropriate steps to remedy even the potential for conflict in the future, with a great deal of input from our GLBT employee group. Specifically, we again are reviewing all our policies and training to ensure they are sensitive to all customers and unquestionably evenhanded in application. We have earned the highest marks for our fair-minded and equal treatment of our GLBT employees and customers, and we intend to keep that reputation.

--Roger Frizzell, VP, corporate communications
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Article Details
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Author:Avery, Dan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Nov 7, 2006
Words:884
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