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 10:31 AM
Updated: Jun 23, 2020 10:31 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."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 728811

Reported Deaths: 13405
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion996911740
Lake53548966
Allen40529675
St. Joseph35596550
Hamilton35536408
Elkhart28470441
Tippecanoe22375218
Vanderburgh22293396
Porter18701307
Johnson17923378
Hendricks17199315
Clark12943191
Madison12612339
Vigo12437246
Monroe11873170
LaPorte11856210
Delaware10667186
Howard9895216
Kosciusko9390117
Hancock8260140
Bartholomew8058155
Warrick7777155
Floyd7653178
Wayne7035199
Grant7032174
Boone6687101
Morgan6557139
Dubois6150117
Marshall6016111
Dearborn580077
Cass5794105
Henry5699103
Noble559883
Jackson501172
Shelby490696
Lawrence4522120
Harrison435072
Gibson434792
DeKalb427185
Clinton427053
Montgomery423688
Whitley395239
Huntington390080
Steuben385557
Miami381166
Knox371890
Jasper364747
Putnam359660
Wabash353479
Adams341054
Ripley339170
Jefferson329281
White313554
Daviess296299
Wells291381
Decatur284792
Fayette279562
Greene277885
Posey271333
Scott265653
LaGrange265570
Clay259447
Washington240332
Randolph239781
Spencer232131
Jennings229849
Starke215953
Fountain212046
Sullivan211442
Owen198756
Fulton194840
Jay193630
Carroll188520
Orange182654
Perry182637
Rush173025
Vermillion168843
Franklin167835
Tipton162845
Parke146116
Blackford134632
Pike133734
Pulaski116645
Newton107734
Brown101941
Crawford99514
Benton98514
Martin88615
Warren81815
Switzerland7858
Union71010
Ohio56511
Unassigned0414

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1082815

Reported Deaths: 19428
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1258081400
Cuyahoga1119722115
Hamilton799721205
Montgomery514061014
Summit47145945
Lucas42119788
Butler38338584
Stark32273906
Lorain24997481
Warren24274298
Mahoning21546588
Lake20653369
Clermont19761238
Delaware18512133
Licking16418212
Fairfield16176199
Trumbull16032468
Medina15268264
Greene15063244
Clark13983299
Wood13080189
Portage12839203
Allen11639232
Richland11349199
Miami10670217
Muskingum8803133
Wayne8793211
Columbiana8778229
Pickaway8564121
Marion8523135
Tuscarawas8473244
Erie7888154
Hancock6914127
Ross6846155
Ashtabula6805170
Geauga6686148
Scioto6406101
Belmont5881167
Union570848
Lawrence5549102
Jefferson5525151
Huron5430119
Darke5355123
Sandusky5347120
Seneca5282121
Athens519158
Washington5155109
Auglaize490784
Mercer480385
Shelby469293
Knox4486110
Madison435661
Putnam4278100
Fulton422469
Ashland421789
Defiance419697
Crawford3975107
Brown394157
Logan381676
Preble379598
Clinton372163
Ottawa366679
Highland355062
Williams339275
Champaign331658
Guernsey315653
Jackson312551
Perry294950
Morrow284939
Fayette281950
Hardin270864
Henry268666
Coshocton265257
Holmes2603101
Van Wert243463
Adams237852
Pike237634
Gallia235349
Wyandot231055
Hocking215362
Carroll191547
Paulding172640
Meigs144840
Noble133337
Monroe132042
Morgan108423
Harrison108137
Vinton83115
Unassigned02
Fort Wayne
Cloudy
38° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 28°
Angola
Cloudy
34° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 26°
Huntington
Cloudy
39° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 40°
Feels Like: 33°
Decatur
Cloudy
38° wxIcon
Hi: 43° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 28°
Van Wert
Cloudy
41° wxIcon
Hi: 43° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 34°
Rain moves in overnight into Sunday morning and looks to hang around much of the day, likely forcing Mother's Day plans indoors
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events