The Austin Chronicle

Airline Discrimination?

By Diana Welch, June 30, 2006, News

When Burundian author and runner Gilbert Tuhabonye showed up at the Denver airport an hour before his plane departed, he wasn't too nervous about catching his flight home to Austin. But, when he made it up to the Frontier Airlines desk an estimated 20 minutes later, the dark-skinned Tuhabonye says a white Frontier employee named Michael Coe informed him, rather rudely, that he was too late to check in and that his seat had been sold. "He took one look at me and ripped the ticket out of my hand and told me I wasn't going anywhere," says Tuhabonye, who asserts that he still had 40 minutes until his flight at this point. "I asked him to please help me. He told me to get out of his face or he would call [security]. … Then he started yelling, 'Next! Next customer!' I couldn't understand why he was doing this, [except] that he was discriminating [against] me."

"Our records say that he was checking in 23 minutes prior to a flight, and we have a 45-minute cut-off," says Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas, who added that the check-in time on the record was automatic and could not have been altered in any way. In Coe's account of what happened, he states that Tuhabonye said he arrived at curbside check-in at 2:01pm for the 3pm flight, but that Coe had "no idea how long it took Mr. Tuhabonye to make his way" from the curbside to the lobby, where the altercation occurred. He also says that Tuhabonye "never raised his voice nor became overly agitated" but that he refused to step aside. Hodas says that Coe, a supervisor for the airline, has had no prior complaints lodged against him.

With six hours to kill until his rescheduled flight, Tuhabonye made a couple of friends at the airport, including one of the security guards that Coe had summoned. Having been in Denver to run a race and sign books, he had copies of This Voice in My Heart, which detailed his survival of the 1993 Tutsi massacre by Hutu neighbors. "Once she got to know me and I gave the police my book, she was willing to help me. But, what would have happened if I didn't have a book?" Tuhabonye says. Another new friend made was Sea Ganschow, who wrote a detailed account of what happened on her blog. She accompanied Tuhabonye to check in for his evening flight, two hours early. While waiting, they were approached by a harried Frontier customer, who asked if he could jump ahead of them in line as his plane was leaving in 30 minutes. They agreed, and watched as he was allowed to check in, no problem, by a friendly lady named Dixie.

Tuhabonye says Frontier has contacted him to apologize, and sent him a $50 voucher, which he plans to return. Hodas says the company does not plan on taking any action against Coe, due to lack of evidence of misconduct. "I just don't want what happened to me to happen to someone else," says Tuhabonye. "This crazy guy is going to keep doing this."

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