Did American Really Downgrade Woman Because Of Her Race? (Not All Complaints About Airlines are True)

I’ve covered many stories recently of passengers being treated badly by major US airlines.

We don’t always have all the information, but when there’s video or other evidence and the airline acknowledges poor customer service I may not always think the customer was 100% in the right, but there may be operational issues worth highlighting — for instance the United customer who was told he couldn’t fly unless he deleted video off his cell phone, with the airline agent calling police despite the airline’s assurance that they should no longer be doing this.

Still, it’s important to note that not every customer complaint about an airline is valid. Sometimes there are genuine misunderstandings (where they could be opportunities to better explain things to consumers in the future) or pieces of stories that get misreported by media.

That was my first reaction to this story, “Black Passenger Says American Airlines Forced Her to Give Up Her 1st-Class Seat but Let Her White Friend Remain”

On May 2, Rane Baldwin checked into American Airlines Flight 5389, leaving Kentucky for Charlotte, N.C. Baldwin, a black woman, and her friend Janet Novack, a white woman, were traveling together, and both had first-class seats because Baldwin bought and upgraded the tickets. But unfortunately for Baldwin, she was literally moved to the back of the plane.

It’s certainly possible that a passenger was downgraded, the article suggested that there was an aircraft substitution and the new plane had fewer first class seats. Even that seemed strange, though, because American operates 8 peak daily departures from Louisville to Charlotte — all with the same CRJ-900 aircraft type. [What is it, by the way, about Louisville flights?!]

Ms. Baldwin described having been downgraded in advance (her ticket didn’t scan), so it didn’t seem as though the gate agent was selecting her for coach because of her race. And had the gate agent done that, they’d lose their job for sure. There’s no question that’s not American Airlines procedure. However the passenger describes this as “the most blatantly racist” experience of their life,

“I’ve never felt so unimportant my entire life. This flight was the most blatantly racist thing that’s ever happened to me. It was baffling and hurtful that the crew seemed completely aware of what they were doing and just didn’t care. People didn’t seem to trust me and made giant, incorrect assumptions about the relationship between my friend and I,” Baldwin said.

“I’m the one who bought the tickets; she was traveling with me—not the other way around,” she continued. “When my ticket was changed and Janet’s was not, I felt like I was being sent to the back of the bus. I just kept wondering if I was in some sort of time warp and asking myself, ‘Is this what it felt like to be black 60 years ago?’”

I wondered if indeed there had been an aircraft substitution (or out of service first class seats) and there was a downgrade required, we had a passenger explaining she had bought a coach ticket and upgraded. Perhaps American was simply following their downgrade priority and not communicating the situation well with the customer (who doesn’t think she should have been downgraded as a co-brand credit card holder).

Still, something didn’t smell right. I asked American Airlines what happened and here’s what they have to say about the situation.

  • The passengers bought coach tickets. They did not upgrade with miles.
  • They received operational upgrades. However their original flight cancelled.
  • They were rebooked the next day onto a flight with only one first class seat available, so one was booked into first class and the other rebooked into coach.

It’s possible the agent handling the rebooking didn’t explain this as patiently as necessary so that the passengers fully understood what was happening. And I can’t prove a negative — that when rebooking one of the passengers in first and the other in economy, that what was going through the agent’s mind had nothing to do with race but in the absence of any evidence at all I think we owe the agent the benefit of the doubt and in any case the two passengers could have traded seats (and ultimately they report deciding to sit together in empty seats towards the front of economy for the 335 mile flight).

It’s never a good idea for me to express final judgment as to whether or not a situation involves racism. However as a starting point American is a company with a fairly strong reputation in diversity. I don’t think there’s a particularly persuasive case that there was any kind of intentional discrimination here of any sort.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You get to keep an operational upgrade if the flight cancels and the new flight has availability in your original cabin? Didn’t know that.

  2. An unfortunate side-effect of differentiating people by “class” on an airplane, is that it can sometimes come with heavier connotations than otherwise intended…

  3. @LarryInNYC Generally you do not, in fact procedure is a complimentary or 500 mile upgrade you do not keep either, the airline will protect you in the upgraded class of service on a reissued ticket which includes an upgrade with miles or systemwides.

    In practice as an Executive Platinum getting reaccommodations in the club lounge I have never NOT been protected up front on an upgrade.

    The first class seat would have been the agent going out of their way for the passenger. And this is how they are repaid…!

  4. Why would they downgrade one of two pax on the same PNR? Why not choose someone traveling solo?

  5. Let’s face it, the big 3 are NOT competent enough to downgrade someone based on race…

  6. I have no idea what happened here, but this overwhelming recent tendency to believe that every bad thing that happens to a non-white-male is due to racism or sexism is getting DAMN old.

  7. Is it normal to upgrade the +1 to first class instead of the cardholder? I don’t understand that part.

  8. for the record, UA has said, “law enforcement will not remove customers from a flight”. This has nothing to do with boarding areas or check in counters. Those at TPG, yourself and over at OMAAT seem to be missing this point and have broadly applied this to all aspects of UA operations. Not saying UA shouldn’t be doing this, just saying you are stretching their words at the beginning of this story and the one about UA posted earlier today

  9. The point that is missing here, probably from a white mans prospective is that becuase non whites get discriminated so often that race is the first thing to come to their mind when this sort of thing happens. Especially in this case both were on the same itinerary it is very natural for a black woman to think that way. Of course in reality it might not be race but nonwhites often do not see that way and many whites simply dismiss the argument without looking at the deeper reasoning. In this particular case if the race was not the factor the agent should have taken time to explain it if the agent was trained enough and aware of the racial issue. Of course many people, including some commentators here, are not aware of the deeper reasoning and how to handle these cases properly. Easy to dismiss but there is a deeper problem here. It is not really important whether one thinks he or she did not discriminate someone else, but it is important how it is perceived for others because that is what matters more. Not to mention the intention. Even if there was no intention a lot people do discriminate but they still think that they are not at fault. That is more difficult to correct because the subject firmly believes that she or he is not at fault and not willing to learn or accept.

  10. @Missmarirose – the passengers weren’t upgraded because one person was a credit card holder. Coach was oversold, there were extra seats in first, and these two passengers were upgraded so that there were enough seats for all passengers.

    But then the flight was cancelled. They were no longer entitled to first class, but when they were moved to a flight the next day there was one first class seat left on that flight. So it was given to one of the passengers.

    They weren’t entitled to it, but it was a nice thing to do. Somehow they didn’t seem to understand though that there was only 1 first class seat left, and one passenger would have to sit in coach (which is what they paid for).

  11. Taking photos or video of employees is not acceptable. Airline policy is that you can only take pictures or video of your family and friends. When you are on a plane you are on private property. Not everyone wants to be on the internet. Sometimes it’s about the persons safety. An ex spouse or a stalker. But it’s not just about employees. Our other costumers deserve to be able to fly without ending up on utube. Sometimes we have passengers with mental illness or other conditions and they deserve some privacy. Lately passengers have been walking up to employees and they are already videoing them. Nothing has happened. They are just using it to bully and threaten. I’ve even had customers admit that they want to start a situation so that they can sue. This makes for a very hostile work environment. Imagine if someone was videotaping you while you work. I don’t think you would like it either.

  12. P.s. how would you feel if the employees start videoing you? I promise you that we see plenty of bad behavior on flights. We would never do it but how would you feel if we did and then put it on the internet?

  13. One thing that I haven’t found the explanation for is that the person making the reservations and buying the tickets was the one downgraded? Does that info show up anywhere in the system? Just curious.

  14. Meh – the airlines have been discriminating on the basis of race for years. Those of us in the human race have been discriminated against and treated as if we were cattle. Is it any wonder then that the airlines are now getting gored?

  15. To the first point of the article – you failed to mention some customer complaints (airlines or otherwise) are not valid because the person making the complaint is full of sh!t and trying to get something for nothing, or get attention. My armchair diagnosis says that is the case here.

  16. @Crystal

    I think airline employees taking videos of passengers is a great idea. Can be used in evidence against bad apples and, at the very least, used for future training materials.

  17. AA downgraded today, SRQ to DCA from a CRJ900 to a CRJ-700. This happens all the time – even on a route like SRQ to DCA which is always a CRJ900. The 900 has 12 F seats, the 700 has 9.

  18. @Gary, if you read the statements from the two pax, the downgrade itself is a minor issues the media is making out to be the main issue. It was how the customer was treated compared to her white friend that really got the ball rolling.

  19. Life of every person in this world will be video taped pretty soon. Maybe people will start to treat each other better and not like you don’t matter piece of s&*%.
    I deal with the public a lot in my career and my team gets treated like crap by the public, name calling all the time and its depressing we don’t cause 99 percent of the problems.

  20. Gary have you ever been discriminated against due to the colour of your skin? I used to wonder why African Americans are so touchy about race till I visited the USA.
    When youve been knocked down all your life due to the colour of your skin, you might just see everything in black and white. Even if she is wrong here, shes probably faced that shit all her life.
    In the hotels Ive worked at (all in India) the person whos paying gets the upgrade. Simple. We didnt care about the colour of their skin.

  21. Is it possible that a computer made the decision based on miles flown/status/etc.?

  22. The original explanation I read stated that Baldwin was a Platinum member. My husband, as a Platinum, asks for and receives upgrades for himself pretty regularly. When he purchases my ticket and I accompany him we occasionally will both receive an upgrade. What is hard to imagine is that he,, the Platinum member, purchaser, and one who requested the upgrade would be the one downgraded while I was left with an upgrade. When traveling with both myself and my mom, he received an upgrade while neither of us did (which he gave to my mom). My experience is that the Platinum member receives the special treatment. But then, my Platinum member is a white male.

  23. @747always your ‘visiting’ the usa certainly doesn’t give you the ability to pass judgement on the entire country. India is hardly the bastion of equality when it comes to class.

  24. How can anyone downplay the fishiness of this? The Black woman bought the tix. The Black woman is Platinum. Her companion is White and kept the upgrade. Those facts alone require a better, and more public, explanation.

    As many are saying about the president, if you don’t have anything to hide then why are you obstructing information?

  25. Gary, why would you doubt her companion’s take on the matter? What’s your basis?

  26. @Truth cardholder (Platinum MasterCard) not Platinum elite status, and the ‘upgrade’ was an operational upgrade, not a 500 mile or mileage upgrade. The passengers were rebooked when their flight was cancelled only 1 seat in F was still open.

  27. From the article, it sounds like the downgrade wasn’t really the issue….both passengers originally accepted it although I personally think it’s strange to keep the +1 in first class and downgrade the ticket purchaser. But they became upset once they realized that the nonwhite passenger was reseated in the back of the airplane even when the flight was half-empty. According to the white passenger, it sounds like when they tried to ask about the downgrade/reseating or moving somewhere else in economy together the flight attendants would only talk to the white passenger and ignored the black one. So the customer service issues sound like it was with the flight crew.

  28. Gary has plenty to say about the operational issues and even responds to comments. However, now several commenters have now pointed out the seating assignment aside there are other issues, including the difference in treatment to the two passengers, and fact that AA continues to communicate with Novak even on Twitter while nary a contact with Baldwin now two weeks on. Gary’s silence on that is deafening. What do your sources at AA tell Gary?

  29. I work at an airport and I m getting tired from hearing about colors..you ”ll do we discriminate..YES..most of the team does but surprise..suprise the way around. I wariness how black treat white customers and foreigners who barely can speak English to the point that make me go home and cry. Literally cry.

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