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.