Group of Black men file racial discrimination lawsuit against American Airlines

Three Black men have filed a lawsuit against American Airlines, alleging it forced them and several other Black male passengers to deboard a flight after a white flight attendant complained that a passenger had body odor. 

The suit, filed Wednesday in New York, stems from an incident on Jan. 5 when the three plaintiffs — Alvin Jackson, Emmanuel Jean Joseph and Xavier Veal — boarded American Airlines Flight 832 from Phoenix to New York. The trio did not know each other and were not seated together.

Jackson, a professional musician and music teacher, was heading back to New York after touring in California with his band. Joseph, a professional actor, was heading home after spending the holidays with friends. And Veal had just helped a friend move from New York to the Golden State. Their flight home included a layover in Phoenix. 

As the men boarded the plane in Phoenix, they say, all seemed normal. But shortly after the pilot announced an anticipated early arrival time, an American Airlines representative approached the plaintiffs one by one and ordered them off the plane without explanation, according to the lawsuit. 

In total, eight Black male passengers were removed from the plane. Video recordings of the incident show the men demanding to know why they were being removed, with several accusing the staff of discrimination.

At least one American representative can be heard saying “I agree” in response to the accusations. 

When the plaintiffs demanded an explanation as to why they had been removed, a representative said a white male flight attendant had complained about an unidentified passenger’s body odor. 

At no time were any of the men accused of having offensive body odor, the complaint states. 

When Joseph stated that the white male flight attendant had treated him differently “just because of the color of [his] skin,” an American representative responded, “Correct. I do not disagree with you.”

“What happened to us was wrong. Imagine a flight attendant ordering every white person off a plane because of a complaint about one white person. That would never happen. But that is what happened to us. There is no explanation other than the color of our skin. American Airlines singled us out for being Black, embarrassed us, and humiliated us. Clearly, this was discrimination,” the three plaintiffs said in a statement.

Once the men had deboarded, the lawsuit alleges, an American Airlines employee told them they would not be allowed to reboard and would need to be rebooked. But American then informed the plaintiffs there were no other flights that evening to rebook them on.

As the men continued to protest their removal, the pilot informed the passengers still on the plane that the men had been removed because of the body odor complaint. 

After more than an hour delay, the airline eventually reversed its decision and let all eight men reboard the flight. The suit says the plaintiffs were humiliated and traumatized by the experience.

“This complaint follows other reported incidents of American Airlines mistreating Black travelers who are simply trying to reach their destinations,” said Michael Kirkpatrick, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “American Airlines’ treatment of the Black men aboard Flight 832 — and countless other Black passengers and passengers of color over many years — cannot be tolerated. Jackson, Joseph, and Veal deserve justice.”

Susan Huhta, another attorney for the plaintiffs, added that American Airlines racially profiled the eight men. 

“If American Airlines received a complaint about a Black male passenger with offensive body odor, but could not verify the complaint, the solution should not have been to eject eight separate Black men from the plane,” said Huhta. “This incident is consistent with a disturbing history of allegations that American Airlines discriminates against Black passengers.”

In a statement to The Hill, American Airlines said it is investigating the incident. 

“We take all claims of discrimination very seriously and want our customers to have a positive experience when they choose to fly with us,” the company said. “Our teams are currently investigating the matter, as the claims do not reflect our core values or our purpose of caring for people.”

According to the lawsuit, American Airlines has a history of discriminating against passengers of color, particularly Black passengers, with “substandard treatment.”

Previous reported incidents on the airline include an African American man being required to give up his seats on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Raleigh-Durham after he responded to disrespectful and discriminatory comments directed toward him by two white passengers. 

In another instance, an African American woman who booked first-class seats for herself and her companion was switched to coach at the ticket counter, while her white companion remained in the first-class seat. 

In 2017, the NAACP issued a travel advisory warning Black passengers they could be subjected to “disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions” on American Airlines.

Jackson, Joseph and Veal are seeking an award to be determined at trial for punitive damages, including damages for fear, humiliation, embarrassment, mental pain, suffering and inconvenience. 

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