ON MAY 11TH a Nigerian woman filed a lawsuit against United Airlines for removing her and her two children from a flight after a fellow passenger complained of her smell. Queen Obioma accuses the airline of singling her out “because of her black race and Nigerian citizenship”.
The incident took place two years ago on a flight from Houston to San Francisco. This was the second leg of Ms Obioma’s trip with her children from Nigeria to Canada, where the youngsters were scheduled to begin school. Ms Obioma’s business-class seat was occupied by a white man, according to the suit. She asked him to move but he refused, she claims, and a flight attendant persuaded her to sit elsewhere. Shortly afterwards, she says, the other passenger went to the cockpit—presumably to complain about her—and then blocked her as she tried to get from the toilet to her new seat. When she finally took her seat, she recounts, a crew member asked her to step off the plane, where an airline agent told her that the pilot had ordered her off the flight because the other passenger had complained that she was “pungent”.
United took her children and her bags off the plane, she says, and caused a delay to her trip that led her to miss several appointments. “At no time did United believe or decide that Plaintiff was or might be inimical to safety,” the lawsuit states. “The white man passenger first and then the Pilot of the aircraft simply observed that Ms Obioma was Black, African, Nigerian, and therefore unequal to share the cabin with the white passenger and decided to remove her from the contracted flight.”
United, which says it has not yet been served with the lawsuit, has not offered a rebuttal of Ms Obioma’s allegations and has restricted its comments to saying that it “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and will investigate this matter”. Slate, a news site, notes that the four biggest American airlines all have language in their contracts of carriage that allow them to deny boarding or service to malodorous customers. But Ms Obioma claims her smell had nothing to do with her removal and that it was motivated by racial discrimination. If she is correct, this would be the latest in a string of incidents in the skies that appear to have had such motivations. In October the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, America’s oldest civil-rights organisation, issued a highly unusual travel advisory for American Airlines, pointing to a series of incidents that the group claimed showed a pattern of racial bias.
Ms Obioma’s suit also adds to United’s recent public-relations woes. It follows a slew of other allegations of passenger mistreatment, dating back to the most infamous one, when David Dao was bloodied and dragged from an overbooked flight—an incident that also drew some accusations of racial motivations. It is not yet clear what led the United flight crew to remove Ms Obioma from her flight, but one thing is clear, if it was not already abundantly so: airlines really need to think hard before kicking any passenger off a flight, unless there is a true safety risk. Doing otherwise continues to backfire, over and over again.
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