NFL Great Kicked Out Of First Class On American Airlines, Calls It Racism

NFL great Hardy Nickerson was downgraded from first class to coach on an American Airlines flight from Charlotte to San Francisco on Tuesday, along with his wife and son.

The five-time NFL Pro-Bowler and four-time NFL All-Pro linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took to social media to complain about how the situation was handled, noting that his family is black and everyone else in first class was white.

From the way Nickerson described the situation, the customer service here was terrible. Taking a customer, who paid for first class, and telling them that they’re going to have to sit in coach is a delicate situation. You’re necessarily disappointing and putting out a premium customer. They aren’t getting what they paid for, and they’re facing a 5 hour 48 minute flight in exactly the situation (coach) that they’d spent money to avoid.

However when there’s a weight and balance situation, and someone needs to be moved out of first class, there’s an order in which that’s done and passengers show up on a computerized list at American Airlines. That list does not show or factor the passenger’s race.

At some level I’m surprised to see several passengers downgraded on the morning Charlotte – San Francisco flight due to weight and balance, but flight 844 was a 2009 vintage Airbus A321 heading Westbound across the country in winter. The flight was one third empty. The Nickersons also weren’t the only ones downgraded on the flight.

From a passenger perspective, when the airline doesn’t clearly explain what’s happening and why – including how the decision was made to downgrade specific passengers – it’s natural to assume that it’s arbitrary, or the result of race. Five years ago the NAACP issued a travel advisory about American (unfairly in my view) which has since been lifted. Under the circumstances they clearly needed to communicate better.

It seems here that customers were left to ‘fill in the blanks’ about why they were the ones who had to move back to economy, and in that situation it’s not unreasonable for them to assume “what’s different between them and other passengers in first class?” is race rather than frequent flyer status.

I reached out to American Airlines for comment, and will update if they respond.

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, 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. More a “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” moment that a Flying While Black moment. And no, I don’t know who you are.

  2. Why move anyone in first class at all? If the flight was 1/3 empty, moving many coach passengers toward the rear could have worked, too. I was on a transatlantic flight once, and that’s exactly what the flight crew did: move lots of coach passengers back.

  3. Isn’t weight and balance predominantly for take-off and landing? I’ve been moved and then allowed to return after take-off.

  4. Wow, beyond belief. I’m an AA fan, but wow, so wrong on so many levels. If they really had a weight imbalance, why wouldn’t they just say so and then offer vouchers and look for volunteers to move out of FC ? In the worst case, if they got no takers, anything involuntary should still provide vouchers, and only tag free-upgraded seats in FC.

  5. If the flight was in fact one-third empty, to get the “moments” of the aircraft balanced, AA could have easily moved any number of passengers seated in the forward rows of the main cabin to the back without disturbing anyone in first class. Not good to mess over your highest paying customers.

    No comments about “woke,” please.

  6. Usually when this happens it’s move X number of people from one zone to another one. But it is usually just for takeoff, not the entire flight. So this family should have been able to move back to first class as soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off.

  7. @C_M: Actually, I would wonder why I was chosen if this happened to me. Explaining that the process is a blind algorithm is crucial. In this case, was that done?

    DYKWIA is not reacting to every instance in which you don’t get what you paid for. It’s expecting what you didn’t pay for.

  8. If it happened to me, I’d be pissed but my large size (6’5″, 260#) would also explain it. Well, this guy is an “NFL great” and likely to be beefy as well. He’s not famous for being a jockey. And, weight and balance issues are pretty tough on big people. All that said, as is typical,AA handled this delicate situation like crap – as they so often do. Thus leading to accusations like this, which are the default go-to position for the outrage mob. When the reality is that the airline would want to move multiple people in the same group – especially if that group represented a lot of weight. Oddly, you’d usually want that weight in the front, but perhaps the rear was underweight.

    I do hope this guy got a refund and then some for his trouble.

  9. Wow…a lot went wrong here…

    Do I think they moved them because they were black? No.
    Do I think they had a weight issue? Yes.

    That said…there were literally a hundred better ways to handle this than how they handled it. Does anyone stop for a second and say…we’ve got premium passengers here…how do we explain it correctly?…what can we do to make this up to them?…how about asking for volunteers from first class (with incentive) BEFORE using some dumb alogrithm?

    This is not the first time they’ve needed to do this…is there no proper procedure?

    FAIL…FAIL…FAIL AA!!! C’mon you’re a major…act like one!

  10. How great is he. . .never heard of him.

    Did they still offer them drinks and food. . .I bet they did.

  11. How sad that this guy immediately yells ‘racism’ when the problem is ‘communication’. AA should not allow such ignorant employees to deal with sensitive issues like downgrading. AA peeps are at fault, but pax are the ones who suffer. Flying across the US in coach IS suffering if it’s a full flight. But this stuff happens occasionally when travelling. The ability of angry people to instantly ‘express themselves’ on social media is a very unfortunate situation. They should not be allowed to scream about the situation until they know why it happened. Most of us couldn’t care less about some NFL star, no matter what his color. Realistically, if the plane was indeed a third empty, then being relegated to coach wouldn’t be an issue at all. First class is all about physical comfort and nice service. AA can deliver that easily if the flight has lots of empty seats. Angry pax are just making fools of themselves.

  12. Racism. The knee-jerk wholesale explanation for every wrong in the world, from global warming to the latest outbreak of vaginal itch.

  13. I was downgraded once on a JFK-BOS leg, using 500-mile certs to upgrade the trans-con itinerary (this was 8 or 9 years ago). It was also a weight imbalance issue (flight less than half full), but the downgrade happened before boarding started. I was offered a $200 credit for the inconvenience, also before boarding.

    Considering that it was a 30-min flight and I was able to move into an exit row with no one beside me, I think I came out ahead.

  14. I read these responses and am a little amazed especially among frequent flyers. Are we to assume the critics would simply grab their stuff and move back with a smile? Incidentally, he did not describe himself in the attached Tweets as an NFL great or even veteran.

    I thought the priority for movement was upgrades first. Assuming that these people had paid F is it possible that the process was not followed? Of course, no one argued in favor of moving this family because of their color….but should they have been provided an explanation, vouchers on the spot (and not for the difference between walk up economy and their paid F) and maybe meals? Even if everything was done perfectly optics do matter.

  15. If you fail to communicate properly why you’re taking an action then you leave one to their thoughts and imagination to do the work for you…and usually they’re going to come to a conclusion that is probably not aligned with your intent. Next time the FA could politely explain what they’re doing and why, and just maybe eliminate such encounter. Most, not all, people will understand and usually will reply in kind if the approach and communication is clear.

    As for folks upset that this gentleman went straight to racism….well, the sensationalizing of his tweet is no different than the sensationalizing of the headers of some of the blog articles that you all read, rush to comment on, and react to.

    So before you criticize his “straight to race” mindset, remind yourself that people who live in glass houses…

  16. It’s Charlotte, NC – enough said. I see plenty of 200+ caucasian travelers in F (Asians too) so the “he was so big we had to move him” argument doesn’t fly. Maybe Gary hasn’t been in Texas long enough to understand how things work in the South.

    As others have noted there are many other ways that a balance passenger load situation is handled, most all better than what occurred here.

    That said it sounds like he and his family should each have received a row to themselves if the flight was 1/3 full. And if the FAs were at all decent they would have brought them back the F meals that had already been catered.

  17. AA?

    Have terrible service and rude gate agents??

    Especially at CLT???

    I’m flabbergasted. Flabbergasted!!!!

  18. I was moved out of FC to Econ myself due to a weight imbalance. My flight was about 40% full. Frankly, I was irate. As an engineer, it was clear that there were far better ways of balancing the plane than moving 4 of the 8 FC passengers to the middle of economy and about 10 people from main cabin extra behind the former FC passengers. They moved no one in economy back. The whole thing was ridiculous.

    I had to fight to get my money back for the downgrade. They had no record of what was done, they claimed. Eventually, when saner heads prevailed after I sent a polite email to the airline’s director of customer relations and the VP of customer relations. I gave them all the details of the flight along with a photo of my boarding pass. I accepted 50K miles into my account and a first class voucher for any round trip flight in the US, which I’ve already used.

  19. @ 2808 Heavy

    “As for folks upset that this gentleman went straight to racism….well, the sensationalizing of his tweet is no different than the sensationalizing of the headers of some of the blog articles that you all read, rush to comment on, and react to.”

    Awesome comment…

  20. No one addresses the probable actual reason they were downgraded. It goes by fare and airline status. For example, If a forced downgrade is necessary, low level frequent flyers on upgrades will be downgraded first, followed by higher level FFs, then full fare revenue who actually paid full first class fares. I can guarantee you with all the spotlight on racism these days no gate agent is going to downgrade someone based on race. The actual criteria really has to do with revenue. The airline knows exactly what order passengers are in. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, purple, or green. If you contributed to the least revenue in first class in that flight you’re the first to be downgraded.

  21. Him calling this racism is like you calling him an NFL great…. It’s all very subjective. My uncle was an AFL all pro in the 60’s for the Patriots, no one ever called him an AFL Great

  22. Sounds like they just needed to offer the F cabin a downgrade offer, first ones to take it move, problem solved.

    Why was the flight so empty? The only time in the past 20 years I’ve been on a flight like this was a Hawaii inter island WN flight about a month ago… But then then they didn’t have to deal with a F cabin…

  23. I know a thing about weight and balance. Here’s a better solution…move all the coach passengers in the front of the coach cabin to seats behind the wings. Problem solved. This was very poor customer service by AA.

  24. There are lots of ways to fix weight and balance problems. They can also redistribute the baggage under the plane which would not have inconvenienced anyone. But also, taking people from row 3 and 4 has less a corrective effect than taking people from row 1 and 2. Moving a few people in coach from in front of the center line to behind the center line would have done it too. There are so many ways to correct the weight and balance on a plane. Does no one think any more????

  25. They have sandbags they could install to deal with weight and balance issues. But, the gate agent might not have met T0 if they had to put sandbags in the back of the baggage compartment, so it’s easier to downgrade some people. Alternately, they could have asked to gate check more bags as an economical way of meeting balance issues than flying sand around.

  26. There are a number of factors which determine weight and balance: the number of passengers, specifically where they are seated, the amount of cargo and where it is loaded, the fuel load, and the expected headwind on takeoff roll, and the length of the runway.d

    If they were moving people back from first class, it would be because it was calculated the plane would be nose-heavy, making it harder to rotate at the proper point on the takeoff roll.

    The calculations are quite specific as to how many passengers can be in rows so-and-so to so-and-so and how many can be in row such-and-such to such-and-such.

    I suspect that this being during the post-holiday lull, the plane was less crowded in the cheap seats in the back and more crowded in the forward part of the main cabin, moving the center of gravity more forward.

    This racist passenger immediately defaults to the lens through which he views the world, rather than taking a moment to consider that technology necessary to run the world doesn’t care who he is.

  27. First off people don’t realize that plane seating is divided into zones, and as an airline employee I can tell you that the pilots make the decision of how many passengers to move from one zone to another for weight and balance. Secondly, boarding time is very limited and there isn’t enough time to explain to passengers why and how they were chosen to be moved other than simply for weight and balance. Third, simply moving economy passengers further back doesn’t exactly counter balance a nose heavy plane and possibly also the center of gravity from one side to another. Lastly, it may not seem fair to downgrade a paying first class passenger, but it does very much depend on frequent flyer status when deciding who from what zone should be moved.

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