The frustrating incidents that led the NAACP to declare American Airlines unsafe for black travelers

Too many left behind.
Too many left behind.
Image: Reuters/Jacky Naegelen
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The NAACP, the oldest and largest US civil-rights group, today (Oct. 25) issued a travel warning for African-Americans boarding American Airlines, one of the world’s largest carriers.

Historically, the NAACP said, it has issued travel advisories “when conditions on the ground pose a substantial risk of harm to black Americans, and we are concerned today that the examples cited herein may represent only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ when it comes to American Airlines’ documented mistreatment of African-American customers.”

The NAACP warns African-Americans to book and fly American with caution, saying they could be subject to disrespect, discrimination and unsafe conditions.

Here are the four incidents the organization cites in issuing its travel advisory, and how NAACP officials say they unfolded:

1. Verbal abuse and forced evacuation

On April 15, 2016, William Barber, a North Carolina minister and state NAACP chapter leader, was kicked off a plane (paywall) on his way back from a conference in Washington DC. Barber says that he was exhausted and simply wanted to sleep when he asked a flight attendant if she could quiet two loud men behind him who appeared to be intoxicated. Barber says she offered only a half-hearted remark to the men, who began to insult him. He believes their abuse were racially charged. Barber was then questioned by airline staff and asked to leave. He says that a staffer at the gate, a black woman, told him this often happened to black passengers. Barber has since filed a lawsuit against American.

“To be born two days after the March on Washington [in 1963] and still have to deal with this kind of racism and discrimination, it’s troubling,” Barber said at a press conference soon after the incident.

2. Bumped to the back of the plane

On May 2, 2017, friends Rane Baldwin and Janet Novak were flying together on American from Kentucky to Charlotte, with first-class tickets. Before boarding, Baldwin was given a seat at the back of the plane, while Novak remained in first class. The ticket agent didn’t explain the change until Baldwin, who is black, pressed for details. Apparently premium seats had been overbooked, so Baldwin was bumped from first class. Novak, who is white, retained her seat.

Novak, who asked to be moved as well, was offered a number of options, including seats closer to the front of the plane. When the flight was about to depart, Baldwin and Novak noticed that there were seats available near the front, so they both strapped in there. A flight attendant approached Novak, offered her additional choices, telling her she could get comfortable and spread out among empty seats. Baldwin says she received no such treatment.

Novak took to Twitter, and called out American Airlines that same day.

3. Asked to leave the plane

On Aug. 21, 2017, Harvard Law student Brianna Williams and her four-month-old child were booted off a flight after she asked to get her stroller back during a long flight delay. The pilot described her as a “threat,” a word she believes is especially pointed when aimed at a young, black woman. Williams and her infant were forced to spend the night in the airport before catching a flight the next day.

Williams says she intends to take legal action, telling the New York Daily News, “This type of unregulated discretion is a segue into discriminatory policy.”

4. Asked to leave, yet again

On Oct 15, 2017, Tamika Mallory, an activist who helped organize the Women’s March on Washington, was asked to leave a flight from Miami to New York. According to Mallory, she wished to switch seats, and soon the pilot was being asked to deescalate the “situation.” Mallory was ushered off and re-booked to the next flight leaving for New York. Mallory took to Twitter:

The NAACP says it suspects there are many more incidences of discrimination, in part because each of these accounts involve individuals who had backgrounds and training in asserting their rights.

In response, American Airlines issued a statement, reiterating its commitment to the NAACP mission statement and values. “We do not and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” CEO DougParker wrote to employees. “We have reached out to the NAACP and are eager to meet with them to listen to their issues and concerns.”