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3 Black passengers sue American Airlines after alleging racial discrimination following odor complaint

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

Three passengers are suing American Airlines after alleging employees from the company removed a total of eight Black men from a flight due to a complaint about a passenger with body odor. 

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, claims that as American Airlines Flight 832 from Phoenix to New York was boarding in January, American Airlines employees removed eight Black men from the plane allegedly over a complaint about "offensive body odor."

Video central to the lawsuit displayed a group of Black men who were not traveling together and did not know each other being removed from the flight. According to the suit, they were the only Black passengers on the flight.

Emmanuel Jean Joseph, Alvin Jackson and Xavier Veal — the three plaintiffs— were on a connecting flight from Los Angeles. The three allege that at no point throughout the other flight did any employee from American Airlines say anything to them about an offensive odor.

Jean Joseph told CBS News senior transportation correspondent Kris Van Cleave that as he gathered his belongings and walked to the jet bridge, he noticed that only Black men were being removed from the flight. 

"I started freaking out," Xavier Veal said. He decided to record the incident on his phone.

The lawsuit claims that the men were held in the jetway for about an hour and then moved to the gate area where they were told they would be rebooked on another flight to New York later that day. The lawsuit alleges that an American Airlines employee indicated that the complaint about body odor came from a "white male flight attendant."

A gate agent seen in the video at one point seemed to agree that race was a factor in the decision to remove the men from the flight.

When another flight to New York could not be found, the men were put back on the same plane. Jackson described the experience as uncomfortable, saying, "Everybody staring at me, me and all the other Black people on the plane were just taken off." 

"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," said Jean Joseph.

The lawyer representing the three men, Sue Huhta, a partner at Outten & Golden, said that American Airlines declined to provide her clients any answers about the incident and said it seems "fairly apparent that race was part of this dynamic." 

"It's almost inconceivable to come up with an explanation for that other than the color of their skin, particularly since they didn't know each other and weren't sitting near each other," said Huhta.

The lawsuit also cites other recent incidents where passengers have alleged discrimination by American Airlines and references a 2017 NAACP travel advisory urging members not to fly on the airline, which was lifted eight months later.

CBS legal analyst Rikki Klieman said the lawsuit suggests that the plaintiffs might be more interested in making a public statement about racial discrimination than in financial compensation. Klieman believes the question at trial is about American Airlines' protocols and how it handled the employees after the incident.

But Veal 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," he said.

In a statement to CBS News, American Airlines said, "We take all claims of discrimination very seriously and want our customers to have a positive experience when they choose to fly with us. Our teams are currently investigating the matter, as the claims do not reflect our core values or our purpose of caring for people."

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