While the fact that travelers of different backgrounds can have vastly different airport and flying experiences is well-known, a high-profile incident or lawsuit occasionally puts this issue at the forefront of national discussion.
Earlier this month, a California mother filed a lawsuit accusing Southwest Airlines (LUV) -) of alleged "blatant racism" over an incident in which she and her then-10-year-old daughter were questioned at Denver International Airport.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado on Aug. 3, describes an Oct. 22, 2021, incident in which Mary MacCarthy flew the airline to go from Los Angeles to Colorado for a relative's funeral with her 10-year-old daughter Moira.
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Southwest Employee Had Reported Them as 'Suspicious'
Upon landing at the airport through a connecting flight in San Jose, Denver Police Department officers came up to the family. According to the lawsuit, they were under instructions to look into "suspected child trafficking" after a Southwest employee reported them "for no reason other than the different color of her daughter's skin from her own." MacCarthy is white while her daughter is mixed-race.
"The officers informed them that they wanted to question Plaintiff MacCarthy and her daughter because a Southwest Airlines employee had reported them as suspicious and Plaintiff MacCarthy as a potential human trafficker," the lawsuit reads. "As the officers spoke with Plaintiff MacCarthy, Plaintiff M.M. began to sob, fearing that she and/or her mother were in legal trouble for some reason."
While the officers eventually let them go after MacCarthy showed her identification and they failed to find evidence to support the accusation, MacCarthy is suing the airline for the "extreme emotional distress" over their treatment. The suspicion, the lawsuit claims, was "based on a racist assumption about a mixed‐race family."
"There was no basis to believe that Ms. MacCarthy was trafficking her daughter, and the only basis for the Southwest employee's call was the belief that Ms. MacCarthy's daughter could not possibly be her daughter because she is a biracial child," the lawsuit claims further.
"This display of blatant racism by Southwest Airlines caused Ms. MacCarthy and her daughter extreme emotional distress," the lawsuit alleged.
This Is What (Usually) Happens When An Airline Gets Sued For Discrimination
MacCarthy said that Moira, now 12, still "goes silent and does not speak about" the incident when it is brought up or she comes across news coverage of it. The lawsuit seeks economic, compensatory, punitive and exemplary damages. The latter is occasionally given for "outrageous conduct" meant to serve as an example and deterrent for others in similar roles.
Southwest Airlines did not respond to TheStreet's request for comment but had told other media outlets that it does not have "anything to add right now on this pending litigation."
Due to the challenges around proving intent, such cases rarely win in court and are more often settled. In December 2022, German carrier Lufthansa (DLAKF) -) agreed to pay $2.7 million to settle antisemitism accusations around a May flight from Frankfurt to Budapest.
While some reported that the incident initially arose over refusals to wear face masks when they were still required due to the pandemic, the lawsuit claimed that the airline started denying boarding to anyone who "looked" Jewish. In total, over 100 male Orthodox Jews with booked tickets were prevented from getting on the flight.