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Clothes call dings Southwest, again

The airline will apologize after making a Largo man change his shirt.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 5, 2007

Southwest Airlines says it will apologize to Joe Winiecki for making him change his T-shirt, which uses sexual double entendre to promote a fictional fishing tackle shop.
[Lara Cerri | Times]
[Lara Cerri | Times]
Joe Winiecki wears the shirt he wore on a Southwest Airlines flight when a supervisor told him to change his off-color T-shirt or get off the plane.

Southwest Airlines created a public uproar, then issued a public apology last month after crew members told a young San Diego woman that her miniskirt and tank top weren't appropriate attire. The message to employees from Southwest president Colleen Barrett: We're not the fashion police.

Oops, they did it again.

On Sunday, Joe Winiecki of Largo was sitting in the last row of a Southwest jet in Columbus, Ohio, ready to take off for Tampa when an airline supervisor instructed him to change his sexually suggestive T-shirt, turn it inside-out or get off the plane.

Winiecki argued that the airline was violating his right to free speech and objected to changing in front of other passengers. When the supervisor insisted, backed by a burly pilot and security officer, he changed into a different shirt rather than risk missing work the next day.

"It's really disappointing in this country when I can't travel from Ohio to Florida with the clothes on my back," Winiecki said Thursday. "Who's to say what's offensive and what's not?"

Southwest prohibits "lewd, obscene or patently offensive" clothing. But three hours after inquiries Thursday by the St. Petersburg Times, a spokesman said the airline made a mistake and would apologize to Winiecki.

"It was inappropriate for our employee to approach Joe," said spokesman Chris Mainz. "We don't have a dress code. Only in extreme situations would we want to address this to our customers."

He cited three examples: indecent exposure, extreme vulgarity and clothes with threatening language.

Winiecki's shirt, purchased on a cruise in St. Thomas Virgin Islands, uses sexual double entendre to promote a fictional fishing tackle shop. The largest lettering reads "Master Baiter." Winiecki said Southwest crew members on a flight from New Orleans last month told him "that's a great shirt and laughed about it."

A peristent irritant

Southwest isn't the only airline struggling to draw the line on what's acceptable behavior inside an aluminum tube packed with people at 30,000 feet.

Customers have complained, for example, about sitting beside travelers watching R-rated and pornographic movies on portable DVD players.

But what passengers wear, or don't, has been a persistent irritant since U.S. airlines were deregulated in 1979, opening airline travel to the masses.

"I've been in first class and seen people put their bare feet on the bulkhead," said Terry Trippler, an airline expert who owns an Internet travel club in Minneapolis.

Like Southwest, most airline have rules - called the "contract of carriage" - that ban travelers from going barefoot, smelling too bad and wearing offensive clothing. They leave enforcement up to employees in the airport or on the plane.

American Airlines employees removed a passenger off a plane a few years ago for refusing to take off a shirt depicting two nude people having sex.

Southwest kicked a woman off a flight in Los Angeles in 2005 over a political message on her shirt. It carried pictures of President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a phrase similar to the title of the film Meet the Fockers.

Remember Kayla?

The issue moved into the national spotlight last month with the story of Kayla Ebbert, a Hooters waitress and college student. She showed up for a Southwest flight in July wearing a denim miniskirt and a summer sweater over a tank top.

An employee objected and asked her to change or leave the plane and get new clothes. Ebbert was allowed to fly after agreeing to alter her outfit. Her story ran in a San Diego newspaper column, then she and her mother appeared on NBC's Today show.

She sparked a debate that lit up Internet chat boards and blogs, with some defending Southwest for upholding decency onboard and others labeling the airline that once outfitted flight attendants in hot pants as aging and out-of-touch.

Winiecki, 39, a radiographer at Bayfront Medical Center, says Southwest employees didn't object to his T-shirt when he checked-in at the Columbus airport, cleared security and waited at the gate.

A bit of advice

Southwest needs to make the rules more clear to employees and customers, said Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Forrester, a technology and market research company.

"If they don't have a dress code, there's clearly an employee communications issue there," he said. "They shouldn't have people arbitrarily saying, 'You can't wear that."'

Times staff writer John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.

[Last modified October 5, 2007, 01:40:34]

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