Passengers sue American Airlines alleging racial discrimination

Passengers sue American Airlines alleging racial discrimination

A group of passengers is suing American Airlines, alleging two instances of racial discrimination before and aboard a recent American Airlines flight –– though the airline is pushing back on these claims.

Plaintiffs Elgin Banks and Aubrey Kelly, both Black men, claim the airline discriminated against them on a departing flight from Los Angeles on May 31.

"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," Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines, told USA TODAY in a statement. "We are continuing to review this incident, but we believe that the allegations are not a full or accurate portrayal of the incident."

While Banks and Kelly are suing for discrimination, all five plaintiffs are suing for failure to prevent discrimination, among other accusations. The lawsuit comes as the nation has seen an outcry over racism and police brutality against Black people following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

One of the American Airlines incidents resulted in airport security and police being called onto the plane. The civil lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, the Central District of California, on Friday.

The first of the incidents began when the airline made Kelly check his carry-on bag without a justifiable reason, according to the complaint, as there was room for the bag on the flight and it met the airline's sizing requirements.

Next, on the flight, Banks asked if the flight was full and if he could change seats if open ones were available. A flight attendant told him he could do so after the pilot announced boarding was complete. Non-Black passengers did so after the announcement, but when Banks asked for permission from the white flight attendant to get a seat closer to the front of the plane, the situation escalated.

"Excuse me, I asked for a seat earlier and I see you moving people so I wanted to know if I could get a closer seat," Banks asked. The flight attendant said, "Sir, step back," and the two began to argue, according to the complaint. She accused him of raising his voice, which he denied he was doing, and she told him to sit down.

The flight attendant called airport security and police. Security forced Banks off the plane, per the lawsuit. Kelly and the three other plaintiffs in the suit (Natalie Epstein, Brandy Flowers and Cynthia Vassor) were also escorted off as they vouched for Banks. The flight attendant suggested Banks was trying to sit in first-class, which the lawsuit called "a perjurious lie."

Feinstein offered an alternate take on the events: "After boarding American Airlines flight 1931 with service from Los Angeles to Phoenix on May 31, Mr. Banks requested to be seated in the first class cabin. He was informed that he was not eligible for an upgrade and would have to remain in his assigned seat. During the boarding process, he attempted to relocate to the first class cabin prior to leaving the gate. One of the seats he attempted to sit in was assigned to another passenger. The disruption on board required deplaning passengers with the flight departing the next day."

The lawsuit also alleges white passengers were offered accommodation vouchers while Black passengers "who were also escorted off due to their solidarity against discrimination American denied offering accommodations."

"All affected customers were provided with a hotel voucher unless they lived locally, as is our policy," Feinstein said. The lawsuit lists all plaintiffs as out-of-state residents.

The plaintiffs are seeking a combination of punitive damages, the costs associated with the lawsuit, general damages and more.

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