WASHINGTON — Black American Airlines employees at Reagan National and Philadelphia International airports say they have been subjected to racial taunts and are routinely assigned unsafe equipment and the most difficult tasks.
The employees were among 80 minority workers who, through an attorney, have written to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch seeking an investigation into their allegations against the airline.
“I was told by one manager to go back out to that plantation, go back out to the cotton field. They thought it was hilarious, but I didn’t think it was one bit funny,” said a woman who has worked as a counter and gate agent for more than 30 years at National, which occupies a site that once was a 1,000-acre plantation. “They even used the n-word.”
“I’ve heard it referred to as the plantation, the cotton field; get back out there with your cousins,” said another employee at National who has moved planes and handled baggage since 2007.
The Justice Department, which received the letter more than a month ago, has not responded to several inquiries about whether Lynch plans to investigate the allegations.
American Airlines, which this year is merging with US Airways under US Airways management, released a statement in response to an inquiry about the allegations.
“The training procedures and equipment that we use have been recognized as the best in the industry and fully comply with government safety regulations,” American said in the statement. “Ours is a diverse workforce serving customers who are equally diverse, and we are committed to fostering a work environment that is based on collaborative teamwork and mutual respect.”
Five African-Americans employed by American at National met with a Washington Post reporter to elaborate on the allegations contained in the letter to Lynch and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they feared retribution. All were longtime employees of US Airways who now work for American as a result of the merger. They said black, Asian and Latino employees make up the majority of the former US Airways workforce at National.
The workers are represented by Brian Mildenberg, a Philadelphia attorney who has filed successful complaints with the Federal Aviation Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration about conditions at the Philadelphia airport.
Those complaints with the two federal safety agencies alleged that American required workers to use unsafe, poorly maintained machinery to service airplanes in Philadelphia. Both agencies ordered American to take corrective action. Mildenberg said he also plans to file formal complaints about American Airlines operations at National with the FAA and OSHA.
In the letter he sent to Lynch, Mildenberg raised a broader array of race-based issues. He said minority workers say they have faced retaliation when they complained about racially insensitive remarks or tagged malfunctioning heavy machinery.
“There’s a group of them that allege retaliation for their challenging the discrimination, but then there’s also workers who allege retaliation or threats of retaliation over safety issues when they’ve tried to tag out the unsafe equipment,” Mildenberg said. “The race-based part is that the minorities are the ones who are forced to use the worst equipment.”
In the letter to Lynch, Mildenberg says that American Airlines has rebuffed the requests of black workers who seek additional training that could advance their careers. The airline, he said, also “has discriminated against minority employees by subjecting them to harassing and degrading treatment” and subjected them to “disproportionate discipline and retaliation for raising civil rights complaints.”
At both Philadelphia International and National Airport, Mildenberg writes, workers are “in the midst of what they believe is a crisis of workplace racism and discrimination.” He writes that in Philadelphia, black workers have been referred to as “circus monkeys” and that the break room where they gather has been called the “chocolate break room” and the “Black Panther break room.”
At National, the worker with more than 30 years on the job described disparities in disciplinary actions.
“What sums it up is different standards for different employees, based on the color of your skin,” she said. “If a white employee did something they would sweep it under the rug, they would cover it up. If a black employee did something they would fire you.”
She said that on one occasion, during the US Airways era, black employees were encouraged to take charge of the traditionally white-run Christmas party, an elaborate event held at a nearby hotel.
During the planning, she said, “One of the managers was on the speakerphone using the n-word. It’s just appalling. I hate the word. ‘They just want to play that n—– music.’ Those were his exact words.”
The workers also say that much of the old US Airways equipment that they work with — including the tugs used to push airplanes back from the gate and tow baggage carts, the hydraulic lifts and the bridges that are snugged up to the planes so passengers can board — is dangerously deficient.
“It’s just a ticking time bomb,” said a man who has been a fleet-service agent since 2007. “Officially, policy is to tag everything, but if you do that you get seen as the bad guy, big time.”
Another worker, a fleet-service crew chief, said, “I had one of the managers come to me and tell me that we could possibly shut down the operation if we kept tagging equipment.”
Says Mildenberg, “The minorities are the ones who are forced to use the worst equipment.”
In Philadelphia, he says, the better equipment was padlocked to reserve it for white crews.
The crew chief said that there also have been discriminatory practices in assignments for American Airlines workers at National, involving flights that are heavy with baggage or freight, particularly those from or to Florida and three cities that serve as airline hubs — Philadelphia, Phoenix and Charlotte.
“We work in zones. Certain zones get heavier flights than other zones,” the crew chief said. “The African-Americans who work in those zones normally get the heavier flights. The Caucasian guys normally get the lighter flights, which might have 20 to 25 bags on them.”
Asked whether he thought American Airlines had issues that were unique within the airline industry, Mildenberg said, “That is a very good question.”
There have been at least two recent occasions when airline workers took legal action alleging discrimination by their employer. United Airlines was sued in 2012 by 24 black employees, 22 of them pilots, who said they were illegally denied opportunities for advancement. The suit was dismissed.
A Southwest Airlines worker at Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport filed suit in May, alleging he was unfairly disciplined and ultimately fired for offenses for which non-black employees were not punished.
In his letter to Lynch, Mildenberg said he had been contacted by American Airlines workers in Miami, Charlotte, North Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina, Atlanta and Dallas, and was investigating the validity of their claims against the airline.
He speculated that concerns over faulty equipment might be particularly pronounced at American because it inherited decrepit airport machinery in the merger with US Airways.
“I think some of it is the merger with US Airways,” he said, noting that the worker complaints came from former US Airways employees. “All of the practices of US Airways are coming over to American, and spilling over is this infection of preexisting conditions.”
The workers interviewed were asked whether they had seen positive changes since US Airways merged under the American Airlines banner.
“All the people are still in place for everything to happen all over again,” said a man who has worked as a fleet-service agent for seven years. “The seed is still planted. Until you dig up that seed and throw it away, it will keep sprouting.”