American Airlines CEO hopes to ‘rebuild trust’ after Black passengers wrongly removed

<span>American Airlines planes in 2020.</span><span>Photograph: Gene J Puskar/AP</span>
American Airlines planes in 2020.Photograph: Gene J Puskar/AP

American Airlines’ CEO Robert Isom has said the airline – the world’s largest – will implement new measures, including an advisory group, after eight Black passengers were wrongly removed from a Phoenix to New York flight after a complaint about body odor.

The removal caused outrage, and three of the passengers involved in the January incident – who were not seated together and did not know each other – sued the carrier. They said in a statement that “American Airlines singled us out for being black, embarrassed us, and humiliated us”.

In a note to employees, Isom said that the passengers’ treatment was unacceptable and that the company “fell short of our commitments and failed our customers”. He also said the airline was committed to working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, to “rebuild trust”.

“I am incredibly disappointed by what happened on that flight and the breakdown of our procedures,” Isom wrote. “We fell short of our commitments and failed our customers in this incident.”

The airline said in a statement that it was “holding those involved accountable, including removing team members from service”. The airline is also updating its process for handling customer allegations of discrimination or bias as well as criteria for removing passengers from a flight.

The civil rights group had previously advised Black travelers to avoid the airline over “discriminatory” behavior and “corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias”.

That 2017 travel advisory has since been lifted, but the group has warned that it could be reinstated if the airline did not deliver a “swift and decisive response” to the situation.

On Thursday, the group said in a statement to the Washington Post that it “is pleased to see American Airlines has taken initial steps to forge a path toward a more inclusive experience for all” but noted that “it is unfortunately common for Black consumers to experience racism and discrimination at the hands of corporations”.

Separately, a settlement of the lawsuit appears to be in the works after a recent court filing said the plaintiffs and the airline “have agreed to engage in settlement discussions”.