No tattoos please, we’re British

by Laura Townsend Elion on April 29, 2009

Just when air travelers feel they have a gotten a handle on regulations governing knives, gels and aerosols, British Air has added a new concern to the list of potentially banned items: tattoos.

On Monday, Good Charlotte frontman Joel Madden was denied boarding until he donned long sleeves to cover his tattoos. Trying to board a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport en route to London, Madden was ordered by a BA employee to cover up his body art or miss the flight. While still on the jetway, Madden promptly went over to Twitter to take the issue to his fans:

“Was just told by a british air person I can’t get on the plane till I cover my tatts. Should I fight the power? I really actually am in shock, he won’t let me on the plane till I put long sleeves on and another BA rep is disagreeing.”

The rock star acknowledged in subsequent ‘tweets’ that he had complied with the directive because, “it’s not my style to cause a scene.”

Madden also stated that he felt the requirement amounted to discrimination and that the attention the episode brought caused him embarrassment, “I haven’t felt this small since the first time I asked Nic out,” referring to wife Nicole Ritchie. Ritchie, who is also inked aplenty, defended her husband saying, “All of [his] tattoos are spiritual. Since when is expressing your love for God & family against what British Airways stands for?” (Maybe there is some lingering national resentment, as one of Madden’s tattoos is of the Irish flag).

While it might be unusual to hear a celebrity complain about being in the spotlight, the musician’s experience does draw needed attention to the subject of capricious enforcement of airline regulations, both actual and imagined. Apparently British Air’s contract of carriage says nothing about tattoos, giving credence to suggestions that like many other random enforcements, this one was arbitrary as well.

Its unclear what aspect about the artwork was considered controversial or in bad taste by the airline employee, but apparently the folks at BA headquarters think the censure was in bad taste. TMZ is reporting that the employee making the demand was reprimanded, quoting a BA spokesperson, “We don’t understand why the employee took it upon himself to enforce regulations that don’t exist.”

Presumably British Airlines wished the bad publicity over the incident didn’t exist, but I’m betting that Joel Madden is pretty satisfied with the resulting sympathy he has gotten from frustrated travelers the world over who may have never heard of him before, like me.

Nonetheless this is just the latest incident where airlines have attempted to weigh in on personal issues like a passenger’s size (United charges plus-size passengers for an extra seat),or hem-line height (Southwest previously denied boarding to a young women with a skirt they insisted was too short).

So, if you were the all-powerful gate agent, what type of passenger would you ban?

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  • Ron

    Question: So, if you were the all-powerful gate agent, what type of passenger would you ban?

    Answer: Smug airline employees that like to make up the rules as they go along. Since I cannot tell a smug employee from a nice, normal one, I’d have to enforce the rule on all airline employees to let them know how it feels to be at the mercy of a capricious gate agent.

    But that’s just me dreaming…..

  • Bill

    I would ban people who have a tobacco stench about them….and you know who you are!

  • Skip

    First off, Laura, the gate agent is not all-powerful. As a former ramper, I saw many gate agents endure abuse based on over-developed senses of entitlement from passengers. The scenes were never caused by those with Elite status ff cards, by the way. The gate agents have to defer to the supervisors, and everyone has to defer to the flight’s CO. So I for one do not appreciate this inaccurate characterization of the over-zealous gate agent.

    Second, as a performing musician for the vast majority of my life (46 years experience now), we are accustomed to receiving plenty of attention while in the limelight of the stage. But we don’t live there, and out to be left alone just like you are when out in public. We perform onstage as part of our job–and that’s only the publicly-visible part.

    Except for the very few celebrities who demand attention 24 hours a day, we leave the stage behind us when we are done. We do have a right to privacy and, like Joel Madden stated, we don’t like causing scenes. He handled this incident with a lot of class. For every Paris Hilton, there are hundreds of Harrison Fords.

  • Dean

    Or perhaps I would ban smug journalists who try to connect indefensible airline behavior (barring someone with tatts boarding) with engineering and economic issues (size and weight of a passenger). The first has no relation to the second. It is not a personal issue when my neighbor’s torso and thighs impinge on my breathing and circulation because of their size. I paid for a seat, not a slice. When their issue impacts what I purchased it is no longer a “personal issue. Should they then, by extension, get a portion of my carry on meal as well? The seats were designed for a particular passenger configuration. When the passengers exceed the design standards, the seats are not going to handle the out of standard situation (aerospace engineer here, can you tell?). As a formerly overweight guy (6’1″, 280 now 200), I was on the edge of the armrest, not quite over it. When I realized that, I started a weight loss program (no ad here, don’t worry). Why can’t other such individuals and why are airlines demonized when they recognize this reality? Clothiers charge extra for “big and tall” sizes and those customers don’t restrict the clothing of their others. Why shouldn’t airlines charge more, particularly when they do impact the flying experience, comfort and even safety of their other passengers?

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  • Frank

    On April 29th, 2009 at 12:40 pm Skip said First off, Laura, the gate agent is not all-powerful. As a former ramper, I saw many gate agents endure abuse based on over-developed senses of entitlement from passengers.
    ======================================================

    I concur.

    How about the all powerful gate agent who had his neck broken at CO trying to protect a secure area, the jetway? Or the passenger coming off a caribbean flight, who shoved the all powerful gate agent into the podium, breaking his ribs. Or the all powerful gate agent who was bitten in the arm by a female passenger learning her flight was delayed.

  • Kweh

    This is obviously not very well researched; the article makes numerous references, outside of the victim’s own quotes, to “British Air” and “British Airlines,” neither of which exist.

    Must have been a slow news day…

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