American Airlines sued after Black man is removed from flight

·4 min read

A Black man from Arizona and four other people filed a joint racial discrimination lawsuit against American Airlines after the man was removed from a flight.

The four other passengers who joined the suit defended the man, Elgin Banks, when a white flight attendant told him to gather his belongings and leave after he tried to switch his seat, attorney Theida Salazar told NBC News in a phone interview Friday.

But a spokesperson for American Airlines said the allegations "are not a full or accurate portrayal of the incident."

The suit states that when Banks boarded the flight on May 31 from Los Angeles to Phoenix he "politely requested if the flight was full and if he could change seats if open seats were available."

Banks was told that he could move to a different seat after boarding was completed, according to the lawsuit. After it was announced that everyone had boarded the plane, several passengers who were not Black switched seats.

Banks then flagged down a flight attendant and asked if he could sit closer to the front of the plane, the suit states.

"The flight attendant replied, 'Sir, step back,' in an aggressive and rudely intimidating tone," the suit reads. "Elgin replied, 'okay ma'am, all I was asking is if I could get a seat closer to the front.' "

The attendant told Banks not to raise his voice and told him to sit down. Part of the incident was caught on cellphone video, according to KTLA, which first reported the story.

Banks did as he was told, but soon after was approached by security and told he had to get off the plane. Several passengers asked why Banks was being removed.

"It was the passengers around him that implored him, 'Sir, you didn't do anything wrong. You shouldn't be getting ejected from the flight,'" Salazar said.

Banks was removed from the flight, and the other passengers were "escorted off as well as each of them were witnesses advocating for Elgin," the suit states.

They were all later banned by American Airlines, according to the attorney. Banks could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.

The airline company said that Banks had requested to relocate to the first-class cabin and was told that he was not eligible to do so and to stay in his assigned seat.

"During the boarding process, he attempted to relocate to the first-class cabin prior to leaving the gate," a spokesperson said in a statement. "One of the seats he attempted to sit in was assigned to another passenger. The disruption on board required deplaning passengers with the flight departing the next day."

American Airlines denied that the passengers were banned and said everyone who was not a local resident was given a hotel voucher.

"Discrimination of any kind is not acceptable and does not align with our values, which is why we launched an investigation. We are continuing to review this incident, but we believe that the allegations are not a full or accurate portrayal of the incident," the statement read.

Salazar disputed the airline's version of events.

Brandy Flowers, one of the passengers on the flight and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, told KTLA that she spoke up because "silence is not an option anymore."

"When you see something that is wrong and unethical ... we need to stand up and say something," she said.

Salazar said he agrees. "It's important to speak out when you see something that you know is an injustice, and that's what happened in this instance," he told NBC News. "If people come together when they see something wrong and they speak out against it, it'll make it less acceptable in our society, and I think that's the most important thing to take away from this."

American Airlines has been accused of racial discrimination in the past. Last year, two Muslim men from the Dallas area said they were racially profiled and forced off a flight because one of them was deemed suspicious for using a bathroom and flushing twice before takeoff.

American said at the time it was reviewing the incident and had reached out to the men "to better understand their experience.”

And in 2018, rapper Wale tweeted that two flight attendants threatened to call the police on him because they thought he didn't belong in first class. The airline later apologized.

In 2017, the NAACP issued an advisory warning African Americans to exercise caution when traveling on American Airlines following a "pattern of disturbing incidents."

Later that year, the airline announced internal changes that included companywide racial bias training.