A new civil rights lawsuit says that a United Airlines crew ejected a Nigerian woman and her two children from a flight on the basis of race, after complaints from a white passenger who had previously stolen the woman’s seat. The suit claims the woman was taking her children to school in Canada, and United’s decision caused them to miss important appointments. The allegations continue a string of embarrassments over the airline’s customer service failures, while adding a racial element that could even further erode United’s battered public image.
According to the complaint filed in Houston Friday, the incident unfolded on March 4, 2016. Nigerian citizen Queen Obioma was escorting two of her children from Nigeria to Ontario, Canada for school, and boarded a plane in Houston to find a white man sitting in her assigned business-class seat. That passenger refused to move even after a United crew member asked him, and Obioma ultimately had to take a different seat in business class.
The same passenger then rose and entered the cockpit, and later blocked Obioma’s access to her seat for “several minutes” before she was able to, in the suit’s words, “squeeze” past him to her seat. A United crew member identified in the suit as Russell H. almost immediately ordered Obioma off the plane. Once off the plane, Obioma was informed by United staff that “the pilot personally requested that Ms. Obioma be ejected from the aircraft because the white man sitting around her in the business class cabin was not comfortable flying with her because she was ‘pungent,'” the lawsuit says.
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The suit states the events were racially motivated, saying that United “wrongfully singled out Ms. Obioma and her children because they were blacks and punished them publicly because a white man did not want them on the plane.” United staff, according to the suit, also “marched” Obioma’s two children “out of the aircraft like criminals,” and Obiama “sobbed uncontrollably for a long time” due to the embarrassment and trauma United caused her.
The family was not able to get on another flight for five hours, and the two children missed their appointments.
“United does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and will investigate this matter,” United said in a statement to Fortune. However, the airline says it has not been served with the suit and declined to comment further on pending litigation. While the events laid out in the suit are just allegations at this point, the picture they paint is disturbing, particularly because of the direct involvement of a United pilot.
Obioma’s lawyer wants a jury trial in the case, which is seeking compensatory and punitive damages from United.
United has previously demonstrated little concern for the comfort or well being of some passengers, including a doctor who was violently dragged from an overbooked flight. United has also recently had more pet deaths than other airlines, including one disturbing incident in which a passenger was forced to place a puppy in an overhead bin, which then died during the flight.
United doesn’t have a monopoly on questionable and racially tinged treatment of passengers, though. American Airlines was sued late last month over an incident in which it refused to divert a flight when an African-American passenger suffered an embolism, allegedly causing her death.