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It’s not just American: Civil rights groups say these 7 airlines have a discrimination problem, too

An American Airlines jet takes off from Reagan National Airport. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The NAACP, the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights group, announced a travel warning Tuesday. Specifically, the NAACP warned African Americans about traveling on American Airlines, where “a pattern of disturbing incidents reported by African American passengers” has emerged.

In keeping with the way that any allegation of discrimination or biased decision-making is met today, American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker then issued a public letter to staff restating the company’s core commitment to equity, decency and facilitating unity. The statement also expressed “disappointment” that the NAACP had issued such a warning about the airline, and the company’s eagerness to discuss the matter.

What Parker’s letter did not say is that the airline is one of eight that received a letter dated Oct. 12 from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (an independent civil rights litigation and advocacy organization) and Muslim Advocates, another civil rights group. That letter — addressed to executives at American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Spirit, Southwest, Virgin and United Airlines — outlined what lawyers with the two organizations have described as a serious and possibly growing problem on the nation’s airlines.

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Passengers filed 95 civil rights complaints against U.S. airlines and foreign carriers flying into the country in 2016, according to federal data. That’s a 45 percent uptick from 2015. As of Oct. 16 this year, passengers have filed 70 civil rights complaints against airlines, including at least 13 against American Airlines, according to the Department of Transportation.

Even with the increase, these figures probably underrepresent the problem, civil rights organizations say. Many passengers aren’t aware that complaints can be filed with the Department of Transportation. Some only take concerns to the airline or keep quiet about their experiences out of fear of future travel problems or exhaustion with the experience.

In 2016, the NAACP LDF, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Muslim Advocates asked the federal agency to begin investigating stories in the news of passengers who had been kicked off planes but hadn’t filed formal complaints. The Department of Transportation declined that request.

That same year, agency investigators found that there had been no violation of the nation’s civil rights and transit laws in 93 of 95 civil rights complaints filed by passengers. The Department of Transportation’s Office of the General Counsel found evidence of one civil rights violation and issued a warning to the airline. One case remains under investigation. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 16 this year, the agency has found no violation in 31 of 70 complaints. Another 39 civil rights investigations are pending.

“That’s troubling,” said Ajmel Quereshi, a lawyer with the NAACP LDF, about the large proportion of dismissed cases. “We don’t know the basis of each one of the agency’s decisions. But the incidents we reported to the DOT and the additional incidents we cite in our [Oct. 12] letter — where individuals were removed from planes because they were asking to change seats or speaking a language other than English or reading flash cards that are in Arabic — those all seem like discriminatory situations to me.”

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When an investigation uncovers evidence that the law has been violated, the Department of Transportation can charge an airline up to $32,140 per violation. 

Civil rights organizations say they began receiving a surge in calls from airline passengers in late 2015. Passengers reported being removed from scheduled flights after their mundane behavior was perceived as threatening: praying or speaking in a language other than English, calculating numbers on a cocktail napkin, or just plain looking “Arabic and scary.”

In one incident in 2016, the Rev. William Barber — a black pastor and, at the time, an NAACP state conference president — was booted from a flight after asking an American Airlines flight attendant for help with passengers who were speaking loudly nearby and who went on to ridicule his disability and weight. Barber was wearing his clerical collar at the time. The other passengers, who were white, were allowed to fly. Barber was removed by law enforcement officers, then booked on the next flight, which left the following day.

By 2016, the reports of questionable plane removals made to civil rights organizations surged to a level unseen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the period approaching their 10-year anniversary.

The groups think the trend in 2016 had two prompts. A spate of terrorist attacks around the world set many passengers on edge, prompting some to mistake their conscious or unconscious biases with actual danger or risk. The other: Officials with the civil rights groups think that the campaign-trail rhetoric of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump had emboldened other Americans and heightened racial, ethnic and religious tensions across the country. Even a flight attendant’s union pointed to growing incivility and political tension — along with increasingly tight and crowded spaces on most airplanes — as a contributing factor.

“The national conversation on race and difference is playing out on our planes sometimes before we close the door,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, an AFL-CIO union, last week. “The results are not always ideal.”

The NAACP LDF, CAIR and Muslim Advocates worked with the Association of Flight Attendants and the Department of Transportation during much of 2016. And in the last weeks of President Barack Obama’s administration, the federal agency issued the first update to the passenger bill of rights in 21 years. The agency also issued a guidance document to all airlines about discrimination and passenger removals, and earlier in 2016 began reporting more detailed information about civil rights complaints in its public monthly reports.

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Still, civil rights complaints filed by passengers thus far this year match the number filed during the first 9½ months of 2016.

The alert is already working, said NAACP spokesman Malik Russell, because “it’s bringing attention to the situation.” American reached out to the NAACP on Wednesday, Russell said, through back channels he was unwilling to describe.

At the NAACP LDF, an organization founded in the 1940s and independent of the NAACP since 1957, there was satisfaction that the issue was back in the headlines. But Quereshi, the lawyer with the NAACP LDF, said he is concerned about the content of American Airlines’s response.

“There’s nothing concrete in there about what they’re doing,” said Quereshi, who has been working on the issue since last year and was involved in crafting the Oct. 12 letter to the airlines. “It’s just a lot of lines about ‘we try to work professionally and we fly across a lot of borders.’ So there’s nothing reassuring in that response.”

Quereshi said the airline should move beyond the “platitudes,” admit that there’s a problem and commit to training staff to eliminate or significantly reduce the frequency of such incidents.

“The NAACP LDF isn’t asking them to come forward, admit they have violated any law or pay gobs of money. We aren’t trying to set up some litigation here,” he said. “All we are saying is, work with us to make your policies better. Tell us what you are doing already to make this issue better and accept some help.”

Research has evolved in ways that can move training well beyond the now-standard claim of diversity appreciation, Quereshi said. For instance, the Perception Institute has documented the way that race, skin color, perceived religion and other factors can rapidly influence whether a person and their actions are perceived as a threat and produce vastly uneven, bigoted responses, often subconsciously.

The Oct. 12 letter has received just one response from a regional airline, Quereshi said. He did not identify the company but said the airline expressed interest in examining its training and making improvements. A preliminary conversation about those changes will continue next week.

Quereshi said American has not responded to the Oct. 12 letter seeking information about how the airline will address flight crew decision-making about passenger removals and ensuring those decisions comply with civil rights law.

The airline responded to questions from The Washington Post with a link to Parker’s letter. When The Post reached out to other airlines that received the Oct. 12 letter, they declined to comment or referred to an industry trade group, Airlines for America. The organization declined to respond to specific questions but issued a statement.

“Our members do not tolerate discrimination,” the statement read. “Airlines have renewed their focus on training for all customer-facing staff to make sure they are taking care of all passengers and delivering a pleasant travel experience.”