American Airlines vows to take steps against racial bias

DALLAS — Under pressure from the NAACP, American Airlines is promising changes in the way it trains employees and handles passenger complaints about racially biased treatment.

The airline announced the steps Thursday after a meeting between CEO Doug Parker and NAACP President Derrick Johnson.

The civil-rights group issued a "travel advisory" in October warning African-Americans they could face discrimination when flying on American. The alert followed several high-profile incidents including one involving an organizer of the Women's March who was booted from a flight after a dispute over her seat.

American pledged to hire an outside firm to review its diversity in hiring and promotion, train all 120,000 employees to counteract so-called implicit bias, create a special team to review passengers' discrimination complaints, and improve resolution of employee complaints about bias.

The NAACP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The airline's promise followed the second meeting between Parker, Johnson, Women's March organizer Tamika Mallory and others at American's headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.

In October, Mallory called an American Airlines pilot a racist after he ordered her off a flight in Miami. She posted an emotional video about the incident on Facebook, which has been viewed 530,000 times, and mulled whether to take legal action against American.

Two weeks later, the NAACP issued its warning to African-American travelers.

Parker's initial response was to defend his airline's diversity — about 15 percent of its employees are African-American, slightly more than the national average — but call the NAACP's criticism an opportunity for the airline to improve and become a leader on issues of diversity and inclusion.

On Thursday, Parker said in a note to employees that the criticism has led to conversations with outside groups as well as the airline's own employees "that we may not have otherwise had."

Since the start of 2016 through September, American has been the subject of 29 racial-discrimination complaints by passengers, more than any other U.S. carrier although a tiny fraction of the airline's passengers.

Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communication at Dartmouth University who wrote about racism at the Denny's restaurant chain in the 1990s, called American's measures Thursday a good first step but inadequate to significantly change the airline's culture.

"This is the kind of thing you do to get by. I don't think it's enough," he said.

American should take bolder steps, including naming more minorities to senior executive positions and the board of directors, Argenti said.

However, David Margulies, president of a Dallas firm that advises companies on crisis communications, said American had handled the NAACP's criticism well — in part by not being overly defensive or argumentative.

"This says, 'We want to do better, we recognize there could be an issue, and here's what we're going to do,'" he said. "I think they've been smart and strategic about it."

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David Koenig can be reached at http://twitter.com/airlinewriter

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This story has been updated to correct that American has been the subject of 29 racial-discrimination complaints by passengers since the start of 2016, not 40.

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