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Passengers alleging racial discrimination sue American Airlines over Black man's removal from flight

A Southwest Airlines flight attendant had an emotional conversation about race with a passenger who later revealed he was the CEO of American Airlines.

Posted: Jun 23, 2020 9:31 AM
Updated: Jun 23, 2020 9:31 AM

American Airlines is being sued by five passengers who allege they were improperly removed from a flight because of racial discrimination by the airline.

American says it is investigating the incident but at this point it believes the allegations in the federal lawsuit are inaccurate.

The suit comes at a difficult time for airlines, which are trying to convince passengers that it is safe to fly again despite the pandemic, even if maintaining six feet of distance from other passengers is difficult on flights unless they are mostly empty. It also comes at a time when national protests about systemic racism are happening around the country.

The suit charges that one of the passengers, Elgin Banks, who is Black, asked if he could change seats on a Los Angeles to Phoenix flight on the evening of May 31. He said he wanted to provide more space between him and other passengers.

Banks said he was told by a flight attendant he would have to wait until after boarding had been completed before he could change seats. According to the suit, he saw White passengers changing seats once the boarding process was completed. Then, he asked a flight attendant if he could take a seat closer to the front of the plane. The suit alleges a flight attendant told him to sit down and lower his voice. Two of the other plaintiffs said he did not raise his voice, according to their affidavits. The flight attendant then called security to have him removed from the plane.

A statement from American says that Banks had asked to move into first class, and that he was not eligible for an upgrade. Banks denies asking for a first class seat in the lawsuit.

The other four passengers who brought the suit — three of whom the suit identifies as African American women and one as a White woman — objected to his removal, and they were ordered off the plane as well, according to the suit.

The incident caused American to cancel the flight altogether. The airline said passengers were given refunds or offered tickets on the flight the next day.

"The disruption on board required deplaning passengers," American said in its statement. "Discrimination of any kind is not acceptable and does not align with our values, which is why we launched an investigation when were made aware of the allegations. We are continuing to review this incident, but we believe that the allegations are not a full or accurate portrayal of the incident. All affected customers were provided with a hotel voucher unless they lived locally, as is our policy."

The suit says Banks never asked for a first class seat and referred to the allegation by the flight attendant that he had as a "perjurious lie."

The suit also alleges that after the five plaintiffs were removed from the plane, a security employee asked one of the Black plaintiffs, Cynthia Vassor, "Why would you want to fly with an airline that doesn't want you on their plane?"

The suit also alleges that the five plaintiffs in the suit were told by the airline they were banned from future travel on the airline, and that unlike other passengers the Black plaintiffs were not offered hotel vouchers. According to the affidavit of Natalie Epstein, the White plaintiff in the case, only she and one other White passenger who had objected to Banks' removal received hotel vouchers. American denies any of them were banned, and says all, including Banks, were offered hotel vouchers.

The incident occurred just days before CEO Doug Parker wrote to airline employees about the need to have White Americans do a better job of listening to the concerns of Black Americans.

He wrote an essay about a flight he had taken on another airline -- Southwest -- and about a conversation he had with an African American flight attendant on the flight.

The two had an emotional discussion during the flight, and the story of their encounter got a lot of news coverage.

"These are trying times," Parker wrote to American employees after his flight. "Our people are hurting. I'm not certain what all of the answers are, but I know it involves talking to each other. And listening. And it takes courage and leadership to start the conversation and to stand up for what is right. JacqueRae taught me all that. Please get out and talk to your teams today. Bring people together, not apart. We need caring leadership now more than ever."

Epstein, the White plaintiff in the case, said she saw the news reports about Parker's statements on race.

"The hypocrisy hurts," she said in her affidavit. "He could start by making things right for Elgin Banks."

American Airlines has had a spotty record on race relations in recent years.

In 2017, the NAACP went so far as to issue a travel advisory to Black airline passengers, saying that "booking and boarding flights on American Airlines could subject them [to] disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions."

The airline responded by saying it would take steps to address those concerns, including having all employees take "annual implicit bias training."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 307519

Reported Deaths: 7096
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20784248
Hinds19894408
Harrison17493302
Rankin13316275
Jackson13099243
Madison9896210
Lee9859169
Jones8293160
Forrest7523146
Lauderdale7189237
Lowndes6265144
Lamar610784
Lafayette6028117
Washington5280132
Bolivar4770129
Oktibbeha455297
Panola4442103
Pearl River4420139
Warren4281118
Marshall4273100
Pontotoc416472
Monroe4057132
Union403775
Neshoba3988176
Lincoln3871108
Hancock372185
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329389
Tate322781
Pike3181104
Scott310572
Yazoo304368
Alcorn297764
Itawamba296876
Copiah293065
Coahoma289677
Simpson287484
Tippah284868
Prentiss275659
Marion265979
Wayne261341
Leake261173
Grenada254982
Covington254580
Adams245982
Newton244859
George237847
Winston225981
Tishomingo222067
Jasper219748
Attala213373
Chickasaw204857
Holmes186471
Clay182454
Stone179131
Clarke176876
Tallahatchie175540
Calhoun163230
Yalobusha158836
Smith158634
Walthall130543
Greene129433
Lawrence126323
Noxubee125933
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120826
Amite120141
Webster113432
Jefferson Davis105432
Tunica102525
Claiborne101330
Benton97225
Kemper95226
Humphreys94332
Franklin81923
Quitman78916
Choctaw72817
Jefferson64828
Wilkinson64727
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 519071

Reported Deaths: 10712
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson754131487
Mobile37774798
Madison33868494
Tuscaloosa25283443
Montgomery23969565
Shelby23112238
Baldwin20638300
Lee15524165
Calhoun14286311
Morgan14140268
Etowah13664345
Marshall11957219
Houston10383278
Elmore9994200
Limestone9814147
Cullman9475188
St. Clair9429234
Lauderdale9218227
DeKalb8747181
Talladega8060171
Walker7092275
Jackson6755110
Autauga6727103
Blount6488135
Colbert6205130
Coffee5401112
Dale4768110
Russell428938
Franklin419982
Chilton4083109
Covington4053114
Tallapoosa3893146
Escambia388074
Dallas3527149
Chambers3500122
Clarke346360
Marion3066100
Pike305875
Lawrence295395
Winston272372
Bibb256458
Marengo248661
Geneva245875
Pickens232959
Barbour224955
Hale218775
Butler212366
Fayette208960
Henry187844
Cherokee182044
Randolph176941
Monroe171540
Washington164038
Macon154848
Clay149454
Crenshaw149357
Cleburne146041
Lamar139334
Lowndes136453
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109028
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Sumter102932
Coosa99328
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