American Airlines
American Airlines is being sued. Daniel SLIM/AFP

Three African American men are suing American Airlines after being removed from a flight bound for New York, alleging racial discrimination. The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of New York United States District Court, accuses the airline of ejecting them from the aircraft following a white flight attendant's complaint about body odour.

The plaintiffs, Alvin Jackson, Emmanuel Jean Joseph, and Xavier Veal, claim the airline's actions constituted "blatant and egregious race discrimination." On January 5, 2024, the men and five other Black male passengers were abruptly removed from their flight departing from Phoenix, Arizona. According to the lawsuit, the men were not provided with a legitimate reason for their removal and were told to disembark by an airline representative. As they made their way to the exit, they noticed several other Black male passengers being removed from the flight as well, despite not being seated together.

Upon returning to the gate, the men were informed that a flight attendant had loudly complained about smelling body odour. However, court filings indicate that none of the passengers were directly informed that they had "offensive body odour." The plaintiffs allege that the white flight attendant treated them differently and that they were racially profiled and removed from the flight as a result. One airline representative even agreed with their accusations, stating, "I agree, I agree."

American Airlines attempted to resolve the situation for approximately one hour, causing significant delays. The men were eventually told they would be re-boarded onto a new flight. At this point, they learned that the pilot had informed other passengers that the delay was due to body odour. With no other American Airlines flights available that evening, the men were allowed to board the same flight again.

"Plaintiffs then had to re-board the plane and endure the stares of the largely white passengers who viewed them as the cause of the substantial delay," the complaint reads. "They suffered during the entire flight home, and the entire incident was traumatic, upsetting, scary, humiliating, and degrading."

During the flight, both Jackson and Veal were attended to by a white flight attendant who continued to mistreat them in a discriminatory manner. In response to the allegations, American Airlines released a statement: "We take all claims of discrimination very seriously and want our customers to have a positive experience when they choose to fly with us. Our teams are currently investigating the matter, and the claims do not reflect our core values or our purpose of caring for people."

The claimants are seeking compensation for "the discrimination they experienced, including damages for fear, humiliation, embarrassment, mental pain, suffering, and inconvenience." They have requested a jury trial in the civil lawsuit and are asking for a damages award to "punish" American Airlines for its "malicious, willful, wanton, callous, and reckless conduct" and to deter similar behaviour in the future.

This incident is not the first time American Airlines has faced accusations of racism. In 2017, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a travel advisory to Black travellers planning to fly with the airline, warning them of potential exposure to racist, disrespectful, or discriminatory situations. The advisory cited several incidents where Black passengers reported discriminatory treatment while flying with American Airlines.

The ongoing lawsuit highlights the broader issue of racial discrimination in the airline industry and underscores the need for airlines to address and prevent such incidents. The case serves as a stark reminder of the challenges that African American passengers may face and the importance of ensuring equal treatment for all passengers, regardless of race.