American Airlines CEO vows to 'rebuild trust' after Black men were removed from flight due to odor complaint

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom on Tuesday pledged to “rebuild trust” within the company after a group of Black passengers accused the airline of racial discrimination when it allegedly forced them to deboard a flight over a body odor complaint.

Isom, in a letter Tuesday to employees, said it is important to “address an unacceptable incident” where eight Black passengers were removed temporarily, and then reboarded.

“I am incredibly disappointed by what happened on that flight and the breakdown of our procedures,” Isom wrote. “It contradicts our values, what we stand for, who we are and our purpose of caring for people on life’s journey. We fell short of our commitments and failed our customers in this incident.”

Three of the Black passengers removed from the flight filed a lawsuit against American Airlines last month in connection with the Jan. 5 flight from Phoenix to New York.

The trio of men, who did not know each other but were seated together, said they were approached by an American Airlines representative one by one and were ordered off the airplane without explanation.

A total of eight Black male passengers were removed from the plane and video recordings of the incident show the men demanding a reason for their removal. Several of the men accused the staff of discrimination, to which at least one airline representative could be heard saying, “I agree,” in response to the accusation.

When the passengers asked why they were removed, an airline representative said a white male flight attendant complained about an unidentified passenger’s body odor.

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

The passengers were then informed they would not be allowed to reboard and would need to be rebooked, but American later said there were no other flights that evening to rebook them on.

Following an hour delay, the airline eventually switched the decision and permitted all eight passengers to reboard the flight.

Isom’s letter, obtained by The Hill, laid out a series of steps the airline will be taking to “strengthen diversity and inclusion” at the company. These include the creation of an advisory group, strengthened oversight, reevaluation of policies, and education.

“Be assured that we are steadfast in our commitment to working with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to learn from this incident, listen to and rebuild trust with you, our team
members, and our Black customers, and to delivering the best possible experience with American,” he wrote.

The NAACP threatened to reinstate a travel ban on American Airlines earlier this month in the wake of suit.

In 2017, the civil rights organization issued a travel advisory for the airline, warning African American passengers to “exercise caution” after multiple reports of discrimination.

American Airlines responded by instituting a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) panel, and the NAACP lifted its ban in July 2018. This panel, however, was later disbanded amid growing politicization of DEI programs.

Isom said he spoke with NAACP’s President and CEO Derrick Johnson about the incident and the organization’s concerns.

“The NAACP is pleased to see American Airlines has taken initial steps to forge a path toward a more inclusive experience for all,” Johnson said in a statement shared by American Airlines.

“While it is unfortunately common for Black consumers to experience racism and discrimination at the hands of corporations, it is not common to see such swift, and decisive action,” he added.

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