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American Airlines CEO aims to ‘rebuild trust’ after Black men removed from flight

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In light of several recent incidents involving alleged racial discrimination toward its passengers, American Airlines CEO Robert Isom says he is taking immediate action to “rebuild trust” within the company.

In a letter addressed to employees, and obtained by NPR, Isom wrote that he wanted to address an “unacceptable incident” where eight Black male passengers were removed and later reboarded from an American flight in January. He says that the unfortunate incident that took place “contradicts” the airline’s values and what it stands for.

“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.”

Last month, as NPR reported, three Black men came forward and filed a federal lawsuit against American Airlines, alleging they were victims of “blatant and egregious racial discrimination” after being removed from a Jan. 5 flight from Phoenix to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The three plaintiffs — Alvin Jackson, Emmanuel Jean Joseph and Xavier Veal — say that they and five other Black male passengers were removed from the flight “without any valid reason, based solely on their race.”

The eight men did not know each other and were not seated together on the flight.

Isom’s letter outlines a series of steps that the airline will take to “strengthen diversity and inclusion” at the company. The steps include:

  • Creating an advisory group that will focus on improving the travel experience for Black customers,
  • Reviewing and enhancing the company’s internal reporting process for cases involving allegations of discrimination or bias,
  • Reevaluating its policies, practices, protocols and organization culture to recognize and identify areas for growth and improvement,
  • And, educating its employees to “recognize and address bias and discrimination.”

In addition, Isom wrote in his letter that he spoke with Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, about the civil rights organization’s concerns amid the most recent lawsuit against the airline. Isom thanked Johnson for sharing his concerns and viewpoints, adding that discrimination of any kind is “unacceptable” and will not be tolerated within the company.

In a statement to NPR, Johnson said he is pleased to see that American has taken initial steps to “forge a path towards a more inclusive experience for all.”

“While it is unfortunately common for Black consumers to experience racism and discrimination at the hands of corporations, it is not common to see such swift and decisive action,” Johnson said, adding that he hopes that this approach will serve as a model for other corporations who may find themselves in similar situations.

American Airlines did not respond to NPR’s request for comment on the letter or whether or not the employees involved in the incident would be terminated. Representatives for Jackson, Joseph and Veal also did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.

Concerns involving instances of racial discrimination have followed American Airlines for several years, which resulted in the NAACP issuing an advisory warning in 2017 for Black travelers to be cautious about flying on the airline.

The airline’s then chairman, Doug Parker, responded by saying the company does not “and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” resulting in the advisory being lifted in 2018.

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