A Morally Corrupt Virgin

Sir Richard Branson's airline abuses a hero.

If the many postings I’ve seen on Facebook this weekend are any indication, the story of Nicky Howse, as told in the Daily Mail on Saturday, has already achieved a good deal of visibility on both sides of the Atlantic, which is terrific. But in my view absolutely everybody in the free world should know about this, and here – in addition to my own Facebook posting – is my small attempt to help get the word out.

Petty Officer Nicky Howse, 32, who has been a helicopter technician in the Royal Navy for fifteen years, serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is now, on a three-month deployment in California. Recently she had to return from Los Angeles to Britain to attend her grandfather’s funeral. She flew Virgin Atlantic, and wore her uniform, and the entire flight passed without incident. Last Monday, however, when she turned up at Heathrow to fly back to LAX, the trouble started at once.

At check-in, an airport security guard, employed by the firm G4S, told Howse that she couldn’t fly in her uniform. “He was rude,” she told a friend by e-mail, “he wouldn’t let the check-in girl give me my passport.” After this encounter, she described herself as “shaking with rage.” But at least she thought that was the end of it. Nope: “when I got to the departure gate I was taken to the side by the flight supervisor” –  a Virgin employee – “and they said I wasn’t allowed to fly in uniform and had to wear a sleep suit. I then stood feeling completely humiliated with other passengers, clearly curious as to what was going on, staring at me, waiting for him to come back with the black pyjamas.”

Howse asked if this no-uniform business was airline policy. The flight supervisor said yes. “I refused to wear [the ‘pyjamas’] until after I was on board then still refused but basically got told I’d be asked to leave the flight if I didn’t take it off or cover it up.” Howse “went ballistic,” she wrote in her e-mail. “I said ‘In the country I defend I can’t wear my uniform?‘”

Why was the Virgin flunky so insistent that Howse shed her uniform? According to the Mail, it was because they viewed it as “offensive.” She’d have to remove it to avoid “offend[ing] other passengers,” because, she was told, Virgin Atlantic doesn’t “only fly British passengers.” Passengers from other countries – and I suppose it’s not difficult to imagine which countries the flunky had in mind – would view a British military uniform “as a threat.” It was for Howse’s own safety, the flunky insisted, that she drop the uniform. She didn’t want to suffer “abuse,” did she? Howse, plainly several points higher on the I.Q. scale than her interlocutor, replied that “I can deal with that myself if it arises[,] as I did in Afghanistan.”

Indeed, Howse’s own summing-up of the situation cannot be improved upon: “a British airline who claims to be Britain’s flag carrier won’t allow a member of Britain’s armed forces to travel on their airline in uniform.” The flunky insisted – incorrectly, as it turned out – that “it was the company’s policy not to allow military personnel to travel in uniform.” Never mind British Armed Forces rules which, Howse noted, “state that a serviceman or woman can wear their uniforms voluntarily from their ‘residence to place of duty, irrespective of whether they travel by public or private transport, or on foot.‘” Ultimately, however, forced to choose between throwing off her garment and being thrown off the flight, Howse complied, obediently changing into what the Mail describes as “a Virgin Atlantic sleep suit.” Reading the story, I couldn’t help wondering: what were Howse’s fellow passengers doing while all this was going on? Didn’t anybody stand up for her? Not one person?

The Mail reported that when asked about Howse’s experience, “G4S declined to comment, claiming it had not received a complaint.” This is, as it happens, the firm that was supposed to provide security for the London Olympics – and that, when it turned out at the last minute that it couldn’t do the job, had to be bailed out by (ahem) the British military.

A sidebar to the Mail article noted that Howse’s abusive treatment at Heathrow was hardly unique in Britain, where “one in five of our servicemen and women have had insults hurled at them by strangers while wearing their uniforms in public,” and where over five percent have “suffered violence or attempted violence…because they served in the military.” Last June, “six servicemen wearing dress uniform” to carry the coffin of “a comrade killed in battle” were denied entry to a Coventry bar before the funeral.

The sidebar offered examples of how different things are in America: at U.S. bars and restaurants, civilians routinely pick up soldiers’ checks; armed forces members get boarded first on airlines and are often given upgrades to first class; and so on. Irate British readers who commented on the article attested to the starkness of this contrast:

ñ  If my experience of flights in the US is anything to go by the US passengers would have cheered her!

ñ  Whilst on a domestic flight in America, the cabin crew announced that a member of the military was flying with us and passengers greeted this with a round of applause. It wasn’t hard to identify who that was, because they were wearing their uniform!…what message are we sending out when we humiliate and disrespect those who defend our freedom?

ñ  Here in the UK we need to do more to demonstrate our patriotism and our gratitude towards the armed forces. I have been in the USA and seen how they behave towards the troops and it is quite admirable and touching at times.

ñ  What is it with so many British civilians that they are so totally clueless about our country’s service personnel, about what they do or have done on their behalf? In America she’d have been upgraded and applauded all the way to her seat.

ñ  When I was in America last year waiting to board a plane, they announced that Military Personnel got to board first…this happened a few times whilst I was travelling…for once the yanks have it spot on!

Several American readers also commented, the majority view being summed up by one who explained that “we love our military in America” because “we learn early on that what we have comes at a price.” The reactions of several British readers, meanwhile, were summed up by one who wrote: “What has happened to the country I served so proudly in the 60s? I despair, I really do! God help our children and grandchildren if this is what the UK has descended to.” And, alas, there were also British readers whose comments reflected the very mentality that had made Howse’s treatment possible: “Vile woman full of her own self importance. Why does she think she is special?” And: “lets be honest, a full combat uniform would make people have ideas of weapons etc….i personally could be scared to see someone in full regalia on my flight.” Yes, mustn’t scare me with even the slightest reminder that there are people – with weapons! – risking their lives to preserve my freedom.

On Sunday, a Mirror headline advertised that Sir Richard Branson, Virgin’s grand poobah, had apologized for Howse’s treatment. Well, not really. It turned out he had bothered to send out a couple of lame tweets, the manifest purpose of which was to shift the blame for the incident at Heathrow entirely onto the G4S employee for providing the wrong information to his own underlings – who, he wrote, “are mortified and have apologised profusely.”

Not good enough. Not by a mile. Branson didn’t even mention Howse’s name. He expressed no personal remorse whatsoever. He wrote nothing suggestive of respect for Howse and her fellow service members. And his attempt to pin everything on the G4S dolt made no sense – his own dolt, after all, had claimed to be following airline policy and to be concerned about the danger of “offending” other passengers. I know I’m far from alone in feeling that every single one of those involved in this shameful action, whether working for G4S or Virgin, should be given the boot.

Far from resolving the situation, indeed, Branson’s tweets only compounded the insult to Howse and to the military generally. They served only to reinforce the impression – which, I gather from the comments on the Mail article, is already rather widespread – that, at Virgin, the contemptuous attitude toward the military that made Howse’s treatment possible flows from the top down.

And this is, let’s not forget, a man with “Sir” in front of his name, which means he’s a knight. Which, under these circumstances, brings to mind Chaucer’s immortal lines, in the Canterbury Tales, about a very different knight,

….a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye….

Chaucer’s knight, moreover, had “foughten for our feith at Tramissene” (in Algeria), as well as in “Belmarye” (Morocco) and elsewhere in North Africa and Asia Minor, against – well, you know who. A rather neat contrast, that, to our own ultra-hip, PC, billionaire knight, whose airline came this close to kicking a member of the Royal Navy off a plane in order – quite plainly – to avoid giving offense to Muslims.

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