Southwest Airlines was already having a terrible year’s end after a massive winter storm forced it to make flight cancellations that far outpaced those of industry rivals. Then, somehow, the PR nightmare got worse.
At Nashville International Airport on Christmas night, a police officer threatened to arrest stranded Southwest passengers if they didn’t leave a secured area of the airport. A video of the incident went viral across social media after being posted by a passenger to TikTok. Other videos spreading on social media also captured parts of the incident.
In the video, which has been viewed over 910,000 times since being posted two days ago, the officer warned passengers they must leave the area or they’d be “arrested for trespassing.”
“Right now,” he continued. “Everybody to the unsecured side. The ticket counter will help you with any questions you have.”
Shelley Morrison, who was among the passengers with her three daughters, had been in line at a Southwest gate hoping to get more information about what was happening with her flight, according to the Tennessean.
After she and others waited for nearly an hour to get clarification, one of the workers announced over the intercom that she was leaving—and calling security. Nobody told the passengers they had to leave if they had a canceled ticket, Morrison told the local paper.
‘Southwest is calling us’
Two police officers from the airport’s public safety department soon arrived on the scene, which is when Morrison’s daughter, Amani Robinson, started recording a video.
An officer told passengers in the video, “If you have no ticket, you don’t need to be on the secured side.” In response to someone saying they did have tickets, he replied, “Your tickets just got canceled.”
Morrison asked the officer again about potential arrest, to which he reiterated, “If you don’t have a valid ticket and you’re on the secured side and refuse to leave, you will be arrested…If your ticket is canceled, you no longer have a ticket. You understand that, right?”
“Right now, Southwest is calling us because you guys are congregating right here, and they’re trying to close that gate,” he added.
The officer grew more impatient as Morrison tried again to “make the legal connection,” as she said in the video, telling him she’s an attorney.
“Are you refusing to leave the secured side?” he asked pointedly.
“No, I’m not refusing to leave,” she replied. “I’m asking for additional information. Can you cite the statue for me?”
“It’s airport and aircraft security,” he replied.
“You don’t have a section?” she asked.
“I don’t need to give you the code. If you’re an attorney, you can look it up.”
Morrison thanked him and proceeded with others to where he indicated.
When contacted by Fortune, a Southwest spokesperson said employees “did not request customers to be escorted out of the gate area.” Instead, the company had asked “local enforcement to be present at a gate to assist with crowd control efforts while our team worked with customers.”
A spokesperson for Nashville International Airport, also known by airport code BNA, responded:
“The extraordinary number of flight cancellations over the last week caused great stress for our travelers, and included an unfortunate incident involving a passenger, airline staff, and a BNA officer. We are deeply sorry that this occurred and have taken this situation to heart. We are working with Southwest Airlines, and our other carriers, to foster better communication among team members so that every traveler enjoys the optimal experience at BNA.”
Fortune also reached out to the Department of Transportation about the airport incident but received no immediate reply.
Southwest passengers who tried to find alternative routes faced jacked-up prices from other airlines, some of which—faced with public backlash—announced price caps on affected routes.
The Department of Transportation said this week it will open a probe into Southwest Airlines. It wrote in a tweet that it was “concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”
This article has been updated with the responses from Southwest Airlines and the airport.
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