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Lawsuit filed against American Airlines over racial discrimination claims

written by Hannah Dowling | June 23, 2020

Five individuals are filing a joint lawsuit against American Airlines after being removed from a flight, following a racially-fuelled incident between a white air hostess and an African-American passenger.

The suit is being filed by Elgin Banks, who stated that he was racially discriminated against, due to being forcefully removed from his flight to Phoenix from Los Angeles International on 31 May 2020. 

In addition to Banks, the suit is also being filed by four witnesses onboard the flight who defended him at the time, and were also removed from the flight.

Details of the incident

According to the filed suit, shortly after boarding the flight, Banks spoke with a flight attendant and “politely requested if the flight was full and if he could change seats if open seats were available”.

The lawsuit stipulates that he was informed that he could move to a different seat after boarding was completed.

After it was announced that everyone had boarded the plane, several passengers who were not African-American switched their seats, according to the document.

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Banks then flagged down a flight attendant – who was white – and asked if he could sit closer to the front of the plane, the suit states.

“The flight attendant replied, ‘Sir, step back,’ in an aggressive and rudely intimidating tone,” the suit reads. “Elgin replied, ‘OK ma’am, all I was asking is if I could get a seat closer to the front.’”

The attendant told Banks not to raise his voice and told him to sit down, and he did so.

However, soon after, he was approached by security and told he had to take his belongings and get off the plane, to which several passengers responded by asking why Banks was being removed.

The other vocal passengers at this time allegedly called out in support of Banks, stating “Sir, you didn’t do anything wrong, you shouldn’t be getting ejected from this flight.”

Banks was then removed from the flight, while the other vocal passengers were also “escorted off as well, as each of them were witnesses advocating for Elgin”, the suit states.

The witnesses report they were all later banned by American Airlines, a claim the airline refutes.

AA responds

As might be expected, American Airlines tells a different story, stating that Banks had instead requested to relocate to the first-class cabin and was told that he was not eligible to do so, and to stay in his assigned seat. 

“During the boarding process, he attempted to relocate to the first-class cabin prior to leaving the gate,” a spokesperson said in a statement made to NBC News

“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 statement said.

American Airlines denied that the passengers were banned from the airline, and said everyone who was not a local resident was given a hotel voucher, as is standard procedure.

“Discrimination of any kind is not acceptable and does not align with our values, which is why we launched an investigation. We are continuing to review this incident, but we believe that the allegations are not a full or accurate portrayal of the incident,” the statement read.

Since the release of the statement, witnesses to the event and plaintiffs in the lawsuit have refuted the airline’s version of events.

It should be noted that this is not the first time that American Airlines have been accused of racial discrimination and racial profiling on board its aircraft.

In 2019, two Muslim men also accused American Airlines of racial profiling, resulting in them being forcefully removed from the aircraft, after one of the men used the restroom prior to take-off and “flushed twice”.

The airline released a statement at the time stating that it was reviewing the incident and had reached out to the men “to better understand their experience”.

A year prior, Washington-born rapper Wale tweeted that two flight attendants had threatened to call the police on him, as they claimed he “didn’t belong” in first class. 

The airline later apologised for the incident.

In 2017, the NAACP issued an advisory warning for African-Americans to ‘exercise caution’ when traveling on American Airlines, following on from a “pattern of disturbing incidents”.

Later that year, the airline announced internal changes that included company-wide racial bias training.

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