Airline told transsexual 'to remove dress and wig if he wanted to fly'

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The Independent Online

A British transsexual is suing an American airline, claiming he was refused permission to fly while wearing women's clothes.

Richard Ward, who is having sex-change treatment, alleges he was escorted off a United Airlines aircraft in Nebraska and told he would not be allowed back on until he dressed as a man.

Mr Ward, 35, who for the past six years has lived in London under the name Susan West, has now lodged a £34,000 legal action in a Chicago court for breach of contract and personal injury.

The alleged incident happened on Mr Ward's return journey to Heathrow when he boarded a connecting flight from Omaha to Chicago. "It was only when the airline people began to call me 'Mr Ward' that anyone on the aircraft realised I was not a woman," he said yesterday. Initially, he said, he had been able to take his seat and even fastened his seat belt.

"Then a stewardess looked at my passport and informed me that I would not be able to fly until I looked more like my photograph," he said.

Mr Ward's US lawyer, Beth Plotner, acknowledged that her client was "a biological male", but at the time of the alleged incident was wearing make-up, a wig and a dress.

The lawyer alleged that United staff told Mr Ward to put on a pair of trousers, "take off the long hair, probably wipe off the make-up ... to basically change back so that they were satisfied for their own reasons. She was totally humiliated," Ms Plotner added.

The airline, which uses the slogan "Intolerance just doesn't fly", even ignored a doctor's letter produced by Mr Ward that made clear he was undergoing a sex change, his legal action claims.

Mr Ward had previously flown many times in women's clothes on United and other carriers without incident, Ms Plotner said. He had made the outward journey as a man.

A spokesman for United Airlines, the world's second biggest carrier, said he was unable to comment on allegations the company might have to defend in court.

Ms Plotner said United had offered Mr Ward $700 (£500) in vouchers to make up for the missed flight. But she added: "My client never wants to fly United Airlines again. What good is a voucher?"

Mr Ward, who was returning from a three-week holiday to America, said he had made several other flights with the airline dressed in his female clothes without any objection being raised.

But he claims that when he arrived at Omaha, airline staff told him he would not be allowed into Britain dressed as a woman.

However, when he checked with Customs at Heathrow he was informed that United was being "hysterical".

United Airlines offers nearly 2,400 flights a day to 130 destinations in 27 countries. The company is a founding member of the Star Alliance, an association of airlines that offers flights to 894 destinations in 129 countries.

Last year it launched an advertising campaign aimed at gay and lesbian passengers, and has used the slogan "fly the friendly skies".

Last night, Claire McNab, of the organisation Press for Change, which campaigns for transsexuals' rights, said: "There's a mechanism whereby passports can be changed for transsexual people but the change is not always available as early as people may actually require it.

"However, whether or not a passport has been changed there is no legitimate reason for an airline to impose gender- specific dress codes on its passengers.

"If United Airlines does have a gender dress code for passengers, I would hope they would publish it promptly, so women wearing trousers, men wearing kilts and others can be forewarned," Ms McNab said.