US airline suspends staff after black men kicked off flight

American Airlines aircraft
Three men sued the airline following the January incident on a flight between Phoenix and New York. [Getty Images]

Several American Airlines employees have been put on leave for their involvement in an incident in which black passengers were removed from a flight after a complaint about body odour.

Three passengers filed a lawsuit against the carrier in May, alleging racial discrimination in the 5 January incident.

In a note to employees, CEO Robert Isom said that the incident was unacceptable and that the company "fell short" of its commitment to customers.

"We are holding those involved accountable, including removing team members from service," the airline said in a statement.

The company has also announced a number of initiatives aimed at preventing such incidents from taking place, including an "advisory group" focused on the experience of black passengers.

In the May lawsuit, three men - who were not seated together and did not know each other - said that every black man was removed from the flight between Phoenix, Arizona and New York City.

A total of eight passengers were removed.

"American Airlines singled us out for being black, embarrassed us, and humiliated us," they said in a statement.

The three men - Alvin Jackson, Emmanuel Jean Joseph, and Xavier Veal - were eventually allowed to re-take their seats on their original flight.

In a letter to employees dated 18 June, Mr Isom said he was "incredibly disappointed by what happened on the flight and the breakdown of our procedures".

"We fell short of our commitments and failed our customers," he said.

He added that the airline is "steadfast in our commitment" to working with civil rights organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, to "rebuild trust".

The incident is not the first time that American Airlines has faced allegations of discrimination.

In a separate incident in 2017, the NAACP warned black travellers to avoid the airline, citing a pattern of "disrespectful" and "discriminatory" behaviour as well as a "corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias".

They lifted the advisory the following year after the carrier announced it had made changes to its operations.

On 4 June this year, however, it warned that it could reinstate the warning unless American gave a "swift and decisive response" to the January incident.