Three Black men filed a federal lawsuit against a major U.S. airline on Wednesday, alleging flight attendants racially profiled them on a New York City-bound flight in January over a body odor complaint.

Alvin Jackson, Emmanuel Jean Joseph, and Xavier Veal filed the lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York, alleging American Airlines employees on Flight 832 from Phoenix approached them and five other Black passengers, and later ordered them all to deboard the plane without explanation. As they began to comply with the orders, the men noticed that the only passengers who were being ordered off the flight were Black men, and it appeared that every Black man on the plane was being removed, according to the complaint.

“What happened to us was wrong,” the men said in a joint statement released by Outten & Golden LLP.  “Imagine a flight attendant ordering every white person off a plane because of a complaint about one white person. That would never happen. But that is what happened to us. There is no explanation other than the color of our skin.”

According to the release, the men are represented by Susan E. Huhta and Lindsay M. Goldbrum of Outten & Golden LLP, and Michael Kirkpatrick and Lauren E. Bateman of Public Citizen Litigation Group. Outten and Golden LLP didn’t immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.

The release said that none of the plaintiffs knew each other before the January incident, adding later that an American Airlines representative explained that they were removed from the flight because a white male flight attendant complained about an unidentified passenger’s body odor.

According to the lawsuit, the men pointed out that it looked like their removal was discriminatory and they were solely removed because they were Black, to which an American Airlines representative said: “I agree, I agree.” The men were later allowed back on the flight after no available American Airlines flights could be found.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for pain and suffering, attorney fees and punitive damages sufficient enough to “deter American from discriminating against Black passengers in the future,” according to the lawsuit.

American Airlines on lawsuit: ‘Claims do not reflect our core values’

In an emailed statement, American Airlines said it is investigating the incident.

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

Michael Kirkpatrick, a lawyer from Public Citizen representing the men, told USA TODAY that a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which prompted American Airlines’ customer service department to contact the men. Kirkpatrick returned the call on the men’s behalf and requested to speak with the airline’s legal team, which he said hadn’t contacted him.

The other five men removed from the plane didn’t share contact information with Jackson, Joseph and Veal when they arrived in NYC, Kirkpatrick said, so they aren’t included in the lawsuit.

Kirkpatrick added he doesn’t know if the plaintiffs plan to fly American Airlines in the future, but has said they are anxious about returning to airline travel because of the incident.

“It’s going to bring back memories of this,” he said.

‘Skipped rows of white people to get to our clients’

Kirkpatrick pointed out that none of the plaintiffs could recall smelling anything bad on the flight. Before take-off, Kirkpatrick said the eight men were pulled off the flight with no explanation.

“They skipped rows of white people to get to our clients and were clearly walking through the airplane and picking out the Black men with no white passengers to get off the plane,” he said. “They were spread throughout the airplane.”

The justification was nullified, he added, when the men were allowed back on the same plane after no other flights were found. It led them to believe it was just an excuse to remove the men.

The men reboarded the plane and Kirkpatrick said they felt angered, frustrated, fearful, and embarrassed for what happened. None of the employees offered them an apology or explanation for what happened.

“When they got to their seats, people around them told them what happened and were horrified by what they’d seen in just Black men being removed from the plane,” Kirkpatrick said.

Previous lawsuits against American Airlines

The complaint is the latest incident involving the airliner. Earlier this week, American Airlines fired its legal team following statements that a young girl was negligent after being recorded using the bathroom by a flight attendant.

In 2020, Aubrey Kelly and Elgin Banks, both Black men, sued the airline for racial discrimination after they said the airline forced Kelly to check his carry-on instead of placing it in an overhead compartment and when Banks requested a seat change but was denied it despite other passengers being approved. The case was dismissed in April 2021 in favor of American Airlines, according to U.S. District Court records.

And in 2017, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a rare travel advisory warning Black people to exercise caution when traveling on American Airlines. It followed a series of events that included a Black passenger being removed from a flight and one having their seat arrangement changed.

Kirkpatrick said that forced the men to request American Airlines amend their training, policies, and employee practices to ensure no passengers experience what they experienced in the future.

“They are committed to bringing this case so it doesn’t happen to anyone else and hope it could be a catalyst for change in America so they don’t have to experience this in the future,” he said.

Contributing: David Oliver, Josh Hafner, Amaris Encinas, Ahjané Forbes USA TODAY.

Contact reporter Krystal Nurse at Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @KrystalRNurse.

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