DENVER — When Denver7last checked in with Mary MacCarthy and her daughter nearly two years ago, they were still reeling from what happened after a Southwest Airlines flight to Denver.
“We land at DIA. We cross from the plane onto the jet bridge, and we are immediately surrounded by two armed police,” MacCarthy told us at the time.
The officers were sent to question the mother and daughter after receiving a tip about possible human trafficking, according to the report from the Denver Police Department.
Mother says she was racially profiled while traveling to DIA with her daughter
MacCarthy recorded some of the interaction where she was told the flight attendants were concerned about her behavior when she entered the plane. Those concerns are now the center of a civil rights lawsuit that accuses Southwest of racial profiling.
“It was clear that Southwest Airline employees had alerted the Denver police that there’s this woman and she’s suspected of human trafficking. The only possible reason for having done that is, Mary is white and her daughter is biracial. [They are] Black and white,” explained MacCarthy’s attorney, David Lane.
The two were traveling to Denver in October 2021 for a funeral after the sudden death of a family member. While rushing, they happened to be the last people to board the plane.
“There were no seats together. Her 10-year old daughter wanted to sit next to her mom, so Mary asked people if they could switch,” said Lane.
The attorney said MacCarthy even stayed connected with the couple who gave up their seats for her and her daughter. They told him there was nothing unusual on the flight.
“I chatted with the lovely people who had moved seats for us. My daughter listened to her audiobook. I tried to sleep because I hadn’t slept the night before, and there was nothing unusual,” MacCarthy told Denver7 two years ago.
Lane said officers were polite and professional, and are not named in the lawsuit. He said Southwest Airlines interfered on their contract with MacCarthy based on race, resulting in a civil rights violation.
“Southwest Airlines guaranteed Mary safe passage from San Jose to Denver. Safe passage includes getting off of their airplane, on the jetway. And once she hits the terminal at DIA, Southwest is off the hook. But she got stopped on the jetway, so Southwest interfered with her ability to fulfill her contract based on her race and the race of her daughter,” said Lane.
After the incident, Southwest released this statement:
“We were disheartened to learn of this mother’s account when traveling with her daughter. We are conducting a review of the situation internally, and we will be reaching out to the customer to address her concerns and offer our apologies for her experience traveling with us. Our Employees undergo robust training on Human Trafficking. Above all, Southwest Airlines prides itself on providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for the millions of Customers who travel with us each year. We do not make public our training procedures, but in our One Report where we report out on our commitment to the triple bottom line of Performance, People, and Planet, you can find the following: There is a growing focus on Human Trafficking at Southwest and in the airline industry. A robust Human Trafficking training is required for our Frontline Employees and recommended as voluntary curriculum for other Employees. In 2020, 18,000 Employees expanded their education and awareness around the growing global epidemic of Human Trafficking and Southwest’s commitment to Safety regarding this issue through a video highlighting a recent Human Trafficking experience on a Southwest flight. We also hosted an online course that provides an overview on the crime of Human Trafficking. In 2020, 10,000 Employees learned how to identify Human Trafficking instances and take action, if necessary, through this course.”
When asked for a comment about the lawsuit filed against them, the company said they had no comment on pending litigation.
Over the years, Lane told Denver7 he attempted to settle the issue with the company but didn’t hear back so they filed the lawsuit.
“I’d like to see an acknowledgment that they messed up — an acknowledgment that in this particular instance, race-based profiling was used and it shouldn’t have been, and that they’ve agreed to train their employees not to do these things,” said Lane.