American Airlines has apologized to a black father who was detained for suspected child trafficking when a flight attendant falsely determined that his white children may have been victims.
American Airlines Offers Apology To David Ryan Harris For Child Trafficking Allegation
“To summarize our investigation….we and our flight attendant realized that our policies regarding suspected human trafficking were not followed, and through coaching and counseling … our flight attendant realizes that their interaction and observations did NOT meet the criteria that human trafficking was taking place.
Our flight attendant in question wanted to make sure that you were aware that they sincerely offer a heartfelt apology to you and your family for their actions, and the results that their actions generated.”
It appears the statement may not be in its entirety, but I do wonder what it is that policy really looks like.
Harris accepted the apology, explaining, “I applaud American Airlines for eventually reaching out to me, conducting an investigation and hopefully reviewing and/or ameliorating their current policies. I told the higher ups at American to let the flight attendant in question know that I wholeheartedly accept and appreciate her apology.”
But he also added:
I still, very much think that non-response from the airline smacks of corporate arrogance at worse and a gross undervaluing of customers at best. That I had to resort to shaming the airlines to get a response at all speaks to a general lack of a meaningful customer service apparatus.
The original story, which appeared on September 25, 2023, is below.
Another American Airlines flight, another false accusation of child trafficking. As is often the case, the father had a different skin color than his children. No matter how well-intentioned, I find it difficult to accept the “better safe than sorry” approach to these sorts of situations…
Black Father Detained For Suspected Child Trafficking At LAX…But Why Was American Airlines Flight Attendant Suspicious In The First Place?
Musician David Ryan Harris and two of his children traveled from Atlanta (ATL) to Los Angeles (LAX) on American Airlines last week. One of his sons has a much lighter complexion than he does, which may have made a flight attendant suspicious. That flight attendant took it upon herself to interview the children and when she found they did not engage with her, she alerted the authorities in Los Angeles.
Four police officers and a member of AA ground staff met the Harris family upon arrival in LAX and interrogated them to probe whether the child was being trafficked. It was quickly determined that the family was fine and they were allowed to depart.
Harris sought an apology from American Airlines and took to social media only after hearing nothing back for eight days.
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Are These Hard Cases Or Not?
I’ve written about these stories a fair amount and my question is always the same:
How does American Airlines train its flight attendants to recognize potential human traffickers? What signs are they looking for?
Here, Harris says that the flight attendant interviewed his children and they stared back blankly at the questions.
The US Department of Homeland Security offers a number of signs to identify victims of trafficking, including:
- Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
- Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
- Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
- Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?
- Is the person in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
- Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
Did you catch what I bolded above? So the flight attendant thought the kids looked suspicious, ostensibly because their skin color was different, and then decided to chat with them. Their refusal to engage in what may have felt like an awkward encounter became the confirmation bias of the trafficking.
If it was not for the difference in skin color, what would have roused suspicion in the first place? It seems quite far-fetched to think it could simply be the kids were using electronic devices. And look at the picture at the top…the kids look quite “normal” or “happy” to me.
Harris blames racial prejudice for the indent:
And I don’t care what you say, if this had been a white dad/mom with two little black kids, they would probably been offered an upgrade, not an interrogation.
That assumes facts not in evidence, but it seems to be fathers with darker skin who tend to get accused…(see here, here, and here). Of course, there are exceptions, like the white woman who was accused of being a child trafficker on Southwest Airlines because her child had dark skin.
I’m just not a fan of the “better safe than sorry” approach and it is not at all clear to me that the children failing to respond to odd and ill-timed questioning from the flight attendant provided sufficient ground to detain the family.
I also think American Airlines should have apologized to Harris instead of ignoring him until he took to social media. It seems like a bit of compensation would have shut him up (based on the video above). That’s not unreasonable when he and his children were detained on flimsy and unreasonable grounds.
Harris later posted that he expected the following note from American Airlines:
And if they’re so concerned about child trafficking, shouldn’t the airlines have some protocol in place to stop me from flying with a child I stole long before I’m ON THE PLANE???
You’re telling me that they can stop me from carrying a Capri Sun through TSA, but they can’t put safeguards in place for actual human beings? Make it make sense……but first, how about a “Hello Mr. Harris I want to thank you for your years of customer loyalty I see here that you’ve been a frequent flyer with us for quite while and you’re getting awfully close to your million miler mark!! Congratulations.
I would like to explain and apologize for the unfortunate set of circumstances around your flight and subsequent interrogation. I’m sure that was harrowing to you and your family. There has been a recent uptick in human trafficking, and you being stopped was all part of us doing our part to combat this societal scourge. Once again I apologize for any inconvenience and here is a voucher for lifetime supply of drinks, Sun Chips, and the 200k miles needed to get you across that finish line”?
I’m not sure 200K miles is warranted, but he’s right that a simple explanation like this would have gone a long way.
I do not think this particular flight attendant or most flight attendants have bad intentions when making child trafficking accusations. Occasionally, they make the right call. But it seems to me there is a serious training deficit and a culture, particularly at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines that takes the “better safe than sorry” approach. This is not a valid approach when it involves accusing people of something so serious as trafficking on very flimsy grounds.