Lawsuit says American Airlines kicked 8 Black men off plane, citing body odor

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Three Black men sued American Airlines in federal court Wednesday, claiming they were victims of “blatant and egregious race discrimination” after employees ordered them and five other Black men off a plane in January.

Airline representatives told the men, who were traveling from Phoenix to New York, to return to the gate to be rebooked, according to the lawsuit. An employee eventually told them the reason: Someone on the plane had complained about body odor.

When they first were told to leave the plane, the plaintiffs were “annoyed and frustrated that they were getting bumped” and would probably get home late, attorney Michael Kirkpatrick said. Then they realized that all the booted passengers were Black men.

“It hit them like a ton of bricks,” Kirkpatrick said.

American Airlines said in a statement Wednesday morning that it takes claims of discrimination “very seriously.”

“Our teams are currently investigating the matter, as the claims do not reflect our core values or our purpose of caring for people,” the statement said.

A group of Black men traveling from Phoenix to New York on an American Airlines flight in January 2024 were told to return to the gate to be rebooked. (Video: Courtesy of the plaintiffs)

Videos of the incident, taken by some of the men, show the passengers in disbelief on the boarding ramp as they express shock, ask for an explanation and tell the employees that their treatment amounted to discrimination.

“I agree. I agree,” replies a woman wearing a lanyard and badge.

“Y’all just took like eight Black people off the plane,” one man says. “What?”

American ultimately allowed the passengers back on the plane and continued to John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The plaintiffs — Xavier Veal, a production assistant; Emmanuel Jean Joseph, an actor; and Alvin Jackson, a musician and music teacher — all live in New York City and had booked a flight home from Burbank, Calif., with a layover and plane change in Phoenix. They did not know each other before the flight, were not sitting together and did not see the other five men again.

The lawsuit claims the airline’s decision to remove the men was not based on any “legitimate rationale.” An airline employee ordered the men off the plane one by one without an explanation, the lawsuit says.

It “is near impossible to imagine that American would ever treat white customers in a similar manner,” the lawsuit says.

The body odor complaint came from a White male flight attendant, according to the suit. The lawsuit says none of the men suing the airline had offensive body odor and that none were accused directly of an offense.

Airlines mention body odor in their contracts of carriage that list reasons passengers can be refused boarding. In American’s case, it says passengers must “be respectful that your odor isn’t offensive (unless it’s caused by a disability or illness).” Veal called the airline’s reasoning for removing him and his fellow passengers “ridiculous.”

A woman who was on the flight said that while the men were off the plane, the remaining passengers heard an announcement that an issue with body odor was being addressed, according to Kirkpatrick, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group. American could not find alternate flights for the men and, after about an hour, let them get on the flight again, the lawsuit says.

“We’re walking through the aisle of shame, if you will,” Veal, 36, told The Post in an interview. “It was horrible. It was a really traumatic experience.”

Veal said there was “visible tension” on the plane when they boarded again. At the baggage carousel later, he said, some passengers said that what had happened to the men was terrible. Veal, who lives in Queens, connected with Joseph and Jackson at baggage claim, and the three decided to pursue a suit against the airline.

Veal said he has experienced racism in his life but that this was a new scenario.

“Unfortunately, I’m a Black man and I live in America,” he said. “It wakes you back up to the reality that I can’t just go to the store; I can’t just do regular things like take a plane home.”

American Airlines faced criticism in 2017 for its treatment of Black passengers, including removing people from flights, which prompted a travel advisory from the NAACP. The group lifted the warning the following year.

Though American allowed the men in January to get back on the plane and fly home, the experience was “traumatic, upsetting, scary, humiliating, and degrading,” the lawsuit says.

“None of the White passengers were taken off the plane and humiliated and embarrassed,” Kirkpatrick said.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount of compensation and punitive damages. Kirkpatrick said the plaintiffs also want the airline to reform its practices to prevent such an incident from happening to anyone else.

“Somebody should have stepped up and said, ‘Wait a minute. We can’t do this. This is wrong,’” Kirkpatrick said. “But instead, nobody stepped up and intervened to stop it from happening.”

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