Political Bias at 30,000 Feet? Delta’s Unequal Treatment of a Republican Passenger Caught On Camera

Does Delta Air Lines discriminate against Republicans? That’s what one SkyMiles Diamond member is wondering after a recent flight from Detroit to Chicago O’Hare, where he was forced to gate check bags while other passengers carrying just as much on board weren’t hassled at all. He was wearing a Republican Party pin on his lapel.

The gate agent for his flight told him he was “being denied boarding” unless he consolidated his bags. He had:

  • A briefcase (personal item)
  • Standard-size carry-on
  • Plus a plastic bag that included the meal he’d picked up in the airport, and a garment bag with a piece of clothing he’d purchased from a shop in the airport. The clothing bag was strapped onto his carry on.

Technically, the carry on and personal item are all that you can have. I’ve never been hassled over airport purchase extras myself, although I’ve seen gate agents tell passengers they had to put newspapers in their carry on in order to be permitted to board.

He stood his ground, and the gate agent called over a Red Coat (supervisor). He tried to stuff his food into his briefcase, and the garment bag in as well but it wasn’t working.

He didn’t want to leave the food behind, and he couldn’t check his briefcase. So the Red Coat finally said he could gate check his carry on bag, and bring on his briefcase, clothes purchase, and food – ‘three items’. That worked for the passenger.

However there were plenty of passengers and nonrevs carrying on just as much as he was. But he was the only one wearing a Republican elephant pin on his sport jacket. He writes to me,

I counted passengers having three or four bags plus a coat that they were not wearing. …The gate agent and red jacket refused to acknowledge the blatant hypocrisy and double-standard, even after I showed pictures and visibly identified passengers who were more egregiously in violation of the purported rules than me. I counted at least 12 passengers who had more carry-on items than me. Again, some had three, four and even five bags.

Delta, like other airlines at major airports, earns a slice of revenue from retail sales. Airlines don’t usually stop passengers with airport purchases clipped onto their carry on bags, and don’t usually object to a bag of food on top of allowable carry ons. But the agent wasn’t exactly wrong that the quantity of items technically exceeded the passenger’s allowance. Here the issue was singling out just one passenger for this, and what the passenger viewed as an aggressive and unhelpful tone.

And what was different about this passenger than all of the others? His Republican pin. In our hyper-politicized environment, it certainly felt like Atlanta 1988.

Once he was finally on board with his briefcase, food, and clothes purchase, he placed his bags in an overhead bin above his seat in first class. A nonrev flight attendant behind him began moving his items. He asked her not to move them back behind him. He relays that she said, “I am flying with the company and can do whatever I want.”

After another Delta employee chose him for selective enforcement of carry on rules, you can imagine that went over well.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I wouldn’t be shocked if this was some sort of reaction to his lapel pin but in reality I bet he was just unlucky with a power tripping agent. Like bullies, they have to find a victim and can’t hassle everyone.

    The real story here is that people’s trust in the airline to handle their bags safely and quickly has led us to this point where people haul on so much crap.

  2. Article starts out athat this “other person” had this happen, and then half way through you forget that it wasn’t some one else, but you that was playing the cictin card. You started out trying to make it about someone else because you knew how whiny this story comes actross. Man up.

  3. Hahaha. Like a gate agent would be able to recognize the logo of a political party in the first place, or have the time to even consider singling a passenger out for separate treatment. Leave it to a Republican to accuse a poor gate agent of discrimination for doing their job. Thankfully political affiliation is not a protected classification under American discrimination statutes and any State statutes which may protect political affiliation would be preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act.

  4. I find this article to be one of the many examples in our society of over reaction. I share the frustration of the experience of this traveler but there is no evidence – just speculation. The article should have been labeled an opinion piece or added to a new political section.

    I enjoy and read your articles multiple times a week @Gary Leff. They are insightful, entertaining and informative about a unique industry and form of travel/way of life many of us know all too well. Please stick with that formula and avoid this type of inflammatory writing. Leave that for the portion of society focused on burning it down.

  5. I do notice people who are carrying on much more crap than I am- but I don’t take their picture. How do attendants decide which of the over-packers to confront? Maybe they look for people they think are less likely to raise a fuss?

    But I agree – Gary this is beneath you, please lets not have articles like this all through 2024….

  6. I’ve had them stop me and make me put something I had around my neck into my bag. I was also upset. Must be because I am Muslim. Delta must also hate Muslims in addition to republicans.

    Or maybe this guy had a garment bag in addition to two large pieces (briefcase and carryon bag) and the garment bag. That is three items. Clipping it to his bag makes it easier to transport to the gate. It does nothing for size. Maybe this dude should grow up and stop using the “trump card” to garner sympathy.

  7. My wife gets selected often and she is Filipino. Me, I am dark skinned and could pass for an Arab, but I am not. I get selected for extra TSA too! Boo hoo. Ni big deal.

  8. As a Diamond Member, he should know the rules because he flies so often: 2 items (one under the seat in front of you, and one in the overhead)….regardless of what cabin you’re flying in. It applies to first and main cabin customers. Yes a coat and generally items bought in the airport do not count, but how would a gate agent know that the garment bag was just bought or came on board. No don’t single out the gate agent or Delta as being anti-discriminatory, this is FAA policy, for every airline. Furthermore the pics showing “other customers” breaking the rules are really flight attendants commuting and they are exempt from this FAA policy. So spare us all the “Delta is singling me out” stuff. Not true in my view.

  9. Oh, and Richard. The “Official Airline of the DNC” was from 35 years ago when it was held in Atlanta. Eastern was still around at that time and had a lot of flights into ATL, but I guess DL got the contract. It’s just business, not a political view.

  10. I feel this article was just meant to stir up trouble.
    1. Everybody knows that what you can get away with can be arbitrary to any agent. TSA or gate agent, or even airline attendant, they can get on power trips. Who they decide to pick on can be very arbitrary.
    2. Many photos show people with 1 carry-on, 1 personal bag, and a jacket draped over both of them. That is 100% acceptable. Oh, and one person’s “overage” was a tiny pillow & blanket. OMG, call the police. Call the FBI.
    3. Why are you taking photos of other passengers? Just to make a point? It may not be illegal, but it’s rude AF.
    4. It’s the airline attendant’s job to make sure everything fits as well as possible in the overheads, almost like a game of tetras. They did not do it because of your pin.
    5. You offer proof with an ad from 1988 showing a partnership with DNC. From 35 years ago. Is this supposed to mean that for those last 35 years they only hire liberals who are giving wide latitude to discriminate against the GOP?
    6. Or is this just all clickbait to pay your wages?

  11. This happens. Technically, he had 4 items when 2 are allowed. We can speculate if the garment bag item could have been folded into the carry on, and then negotiate about the food bag. I have had issues with this type of somewhat random and irrational behavior with Air France, EasyJet, American and Delta. Luck of the draw if they single you out.

    The pictures shown has one person with more than one bag (the very first one shown in this article). All others appear to have 2 plus a bulky winter coat (does not count as an item). One has a pillow as third item. There seems to be a female FA/pilot (can’t tell – bulky coat) walking on that has more but they are exempt. This whole story is a nothing burger: I am being singled out because of my color/lapel pin/etc. when in reality nine out of ten times it is because you were trying something that is against the rules and got caught.

    Next time you are pulled over for speeding or a parking violation, try the defense of “but see all these other cars?” It does not work. And shouldn’t.

  12. Now if he was Latino or black or Asian then that would be the reason. First thing people do is think they are discriminated against when in fact they are just breaking the rules. Get over it. You got caught doing 70mph in a 55mph zone

  13. I don’t see discrimination. I believe the gate agent had a strongly held belief that this passenger should not have been allowed to carry all that luggage onboard.

  14. @Tom B:
    > I’ve had them stop me and make me put something I had around my neck into my bag. I was also upset.

    You say “something”–without specifying. I have never had an issue with anything **secured to** my body. However, I can easily picture them having an issue with headphones. They’re not very secure and they’re hard–and below 10,000′ they don’t want anything loose in the cabin that could become a missile. All the third objects that are being listed are soft things. It would be pretty hard for a flying pillow to inflict meaningful injuries.

  15. Delta hates all Diamonds equally. You didn’t know that? Look at the new requirements.

  16. You are definitely profiled. I had similar experiences with Delta as a DM. I hand-carry some electronics equipment for my work on many trips, in the same suitcase for years. My home airport is not big so I see the same GAs. No one had any issue with my carry-on, until a RNC-related tag was left on the luggage from a previous event which was not removed – it didn’t even cross my mind… Then I got stopped by a GA and insisting my luggage was oversized need to be gate-checked. The same luggage I used for many years. It happens to be a 22″ carry-on, but the rubber handle arcs out slightly, so from bottom of the wheel to top of the handle is 22.25″ if I inserted into sizer one way. If I flipped the way it goes into the sizer, the flat surface of the sizer would press the rubber handle and wheel to handle is just shy of 22″. Width and depth are all at or below the requirement – yes, it’s not a very big carry-on. No matter how I explain that it’s sensitive equipment, the GA wouldn’t budge – it’s very clear he was creating an issue out of it. I called my admin to find me another flight but there were no other flights that I can get me to my destination, so I allowed them to gatecheck. And guess what? It arrived damaged, including the content. Delta paid a very expensive claim as it was well documented, and I even complained and tracked down the station manager afterwards. Our company was going to pull our DL account and even our account manager got involved.

    The story here is very plausible. I CONSTANTLY see people carry oversized carry-on. Because I travel to Europe and Asia, I spent a lot of time finding that perfect 22″, so I know when the run of the mill Samsonite and others I see are oversized by 1, 2 or even all 3 dimensions. Most GAs don’t make a fuss at all.

  17. I have seen peeps with 3-4 things carried on and nothing said….Most of the time… Nothing is said also when these peeps put all 3-4 carry-ons in the overhead bins!!! Then others must check their carry-on bag.. not great… In europe -domestic flights they are now allowing 1-personal item and 2 carry-ons!!! There seems to be no problem with this policy and people get on, stow thrie 3 bags and sit down…asap.. I had a newspaper in my hand while boarding first class and told 2 items get out of line and fix it?? No standardization…

  18. Of all of the pictures taken of other passengers, I see only one who actually appears to have 3 bags and it’s a crew member to whom this rule does not apply. The others just appear to have 2 items and a coat, which is perfectly legitimate, as far as I know. You can literally just put the coat on, walk through the gate, then take it back off and put it in the overhead, so trying to count a coat would be kind of stupid and would just waste everyone’s time and make the turnaround slower, which costs the airline money.

    Agreed that bags of food purchased in the airport are normally ignored and they should be. Other shopping bags are supposed to go in on of your carry-ons, though, especially something as large as a garment bag. I’m guessing he would not have been stopped if it were just a matter of the food bag, but then his attitude (and especially the discrimination claim) led to the gate agent counting the food bag, too.

  19. > Next time you are pulled over for speeding or a parking violation, try the defense of “but see all these other cars?” It does not work. And shouldn’t.

    For speeding in particular, it really should. If you were actually driving approximately the average speed of traffic, then fining you for that would be extremely dumb and contrary to the stated safety purpose of the speed limit law. Proceeding at around the average flow of traffic is the safest possible way to drive on a highway. Significant deviation – either above or below – the average flow increases danger to everyone. However, if the speed limit is 70, average flow is 75-80, and you’re weaving in and out of traffic at 90, then, yeah, you should get a ticket regardless of the fact that others were also technically speeding.

    In an ideal world, the speed limits would be raised to reflect realistic speeds for the roads in question. Unfortunately, worlds that involve politics and/or people with perceived power are rarely ideal.

  20. Employee aside, several of the pictures clearly show pax with oversized carry-on. Those clearly exceed 22x14x9. The bulging ones for sure exceed 9″ in depth.

  21. What a snowflake. Man up and STFU, no one cares that’s you’re a moron with 2 cent political views.

  22. @W, thanks for the report about the unreasonable gate attendant who may have been politically motivated. Most manufacturers of carry-on roller bags seem to make their luggage oversized compared to the published maximums that the airlines have. They are probably betting that the gate agents and the flight attendants will let anything under an inch over maximum go and that greater sales will result from more spacious carry-ons. The Asian airlines I fly across the Pacific all have weight limits so I have bought a large rectangular backpack with concealable straps that should fit the maximum dimension requirements of most airlines while giving as much or maybe more internal space than a hard sided roller carry-on. It is also several pounds lighter. Some weight limits are 10kg, 7kg or 5kg and can be a combined weight for both the carry-on bag and the personal item. At 5kg, a soft side roller carry-on can be loaded up with 1kg or less since they are usually around 4kg to 4.5kg. A light hard sided carry-on could be around half that weight. The padded backpack is around 1kg.

  23. I just took a trip this weekend on Delta – flying First Class because I’m recovering from a calf injury and the leg room and closer location to the entrance/exit makes life easier. So roomy seats, dedicated OHB space, lots of under-seat space.

    Normally I check, but I didn’t this time, and traveled with a compact roller for overhead, and a zipper-top tote that was only half-filled that fit easily under the seat. I also had a North Carry “Slim Sling” bag across my body – this was specifically so I could quickly tuck my phone in there while boarding, leaving me hands free to get my bag into the OHB and not worrying about losing/dropping my phone. The Sling fit into the tote once I sat, which still fit under the seat with height/width to spare. So basically, I prepped myself to get myself into my seat as efficiently as possible.

    On the way out of MSP, no one bothered me about this configuration while boarding, and that was a completely full flight where multiple announcements were made about only two items and requests for gate checks happened frequently. Slid into my seat very easily. On the return home from DCA – it was an early morning flight, not full, no announcement about asking for gate-check bags – I was barked at that I had to consolidate RIGHT NOW before I was allowed down the jetway. I was really surprised – I could clearly have worn it while sitting in the seat without any problem whatsoever had I chosen to. Those multi-pocketed travel vests are far bulkier than what I was wearing.

    Part of me is glad they are cracking down on people who are clearly abusing the carry-on system, but a sense of scale needs to be employed.

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