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American Airlines CEO vows to "rebuild trust" after removal of Black passengers

Lawsuit: Airline pulls Black men over odor gripe
Lawsuit alleges American Airlines removed Black men from flight over odor complaint 04:44

American Airlines has taken action after three Black passengers alleged racial discrimination during a flight, CEO Robert Isom wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to airline employees. He also detailed steps American Airlines would take to address discrimination after speaking with civil rights groups. 

In the letter, obtained by CBS News, Isom wrote that leadership wanted to address an "unacceptable incident" in which several Black passengers were removed from a flight over a complaint about "offensive body odor."  

"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."

The employees involved would be on leave while the airline conducted an investigation, American Airlines said in a later statement. 

Three Black passengers sued the airline in federal court last month alleging attendants removed them from the flight due to racial discrimination. Eight men, all flying from Phoenix to New York on Flight 832 in January, were not traveling together, did not know each other and appeared to be the only Black passengers on the plane, according to the complaint.  

Flight attendants made no mention of an offensive odor on an earlier flight the three plaintiffs took from Los Angeles to Phoenix, the complaint said. The passengers were eventually reboarded when there were no other flights to New York with space. Plaintiffs recorded the incident, and in the video, a gate agent seemed to agree race was a factor in the decision to remove the men from the flight. 

"I knew that as soon as I got on that plane, a sea of White faces were going to be looking at me and blaming me for their late flight of an hour," one of the plaintiffs, Emmanuel Jean Joseph, told CBS News senior transportation correspondent Kris Van Cleave in an interview.

Xavier Veal, another plaintiff in the case, recorded the incident on his phone and said he believes that if it had been a White person, the situation probably wouldn't have happened. "We were discriminated against. The entire situation was racist," Veal said. 

There have been other incidents of passengers flying American Airlines who have also alleged racial discrimination, the complaint said. In 2017, the NAACP issued a travel advisory urging members not to fly on the airline. The advisory was lifted eight months later after the company agreed to numerous stipulations, including the formation of an advisory council,  NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a public statement after the recent lawsuit was filed. 

American Airlines disbanded the panel in 2023, the NAACP said, but racial incidents continued.  "Without a swift and decisive response, the NAACP will be forced to reinstate an advisory against the airline," Johnson said earlier this month.

Isom wrote in his letter that he spoke with Johnson about the organization's concerns after the most recent incident. He thanked Johnson for sharing his views and said American Airlines would take immediate actions in the aftermath, including creating an advisory group and strengthening oversight and reporting mechanisms.

"The NAACP is pleased to see American Airlines has taken initial steps to forge a path toward 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 in a statement to CBS News. "It is our hope that this approach will serve as a model for other corporations who may find themselves in similar situations."

The airline's advisory group, the letter said, would "focus on improving the travel experience for Black customers," and promote accountability to deliver an "inclusive" travel experience. Employees will be encouraged to come forward to ensure "swift and transparent handling" related to allegations of discrimination or bias. The company said they'll provide employee training, review operational manuals and institute a long-term diversity plan.  

"Be assured that we are steadfast in our commitment to working with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations to learn from this incident, listen to and rebuild trust with you, our team members, and our Black customers, and to delivering the best possible experience with American," wrote Isom.

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