We live in a race-conscious time in a race-conscious world. And a story about a woman thrown off an American Airlines’ flight due to her cello has me thinking about race.
I want to be a peacemaker in this world, encouraging unity and not division. Speculation and race-bating are generally counterproductive. I also believe that people can be insensitive and even prejudicial without being racist. So I have to apologize in advance for sharing my thoughts on this incident, but I do think my retrospective is a helpful example of why we should not jump to conclusions.
Here’s the story in a nutshell. A Chicago woman traveled to Florida with her $30,000 cello, which she considers priceless. She paid for a second seat for the cello, since it cannot fit in the overhead bin and it too delicate to be checked. She had no trouble on the way out, but on the way back she ran into an issue. After arriving at the airport three hours early, checking in, bringing the cello through security, boarding the plane, and taking her seat, she was told the cello was too big. She was flying on a 737.
Understandably, she was not happy. I’m not sure what she said, but the police were called and she was removed from the flight with her cello. AA agents offered her a flight an hour later, which she eventually accepted…only to be told that aircraft was also too small (another 737). One agent allegedly told her she could travel if she bought two first class seats, but the economy class seats were too small.
AA’s legroom is so tight in economy class that I do not doubt the cello did not fit. AA claimed the cello could not fly because it could not be strapped into the extra seat and was touching the floor.
The V Sign
Here’s where the story gets fuzzy. On the way out, the passenger’s cello apparently brushed against the captain, who cried out in pain. He claimed that was bleeding due to the bump, though no one seemed to witness any blood. As he grimaced in pain, he loudly stated, “This is why we need to get her out!” While doing so, he flashed the V sign.
image: Jay Tang / Facebook
Now when I saw that and learned the passenger was a Chinese immigrant, Jingjing Hu, my mind drifted immediately to race. Did the captain think “they all look alike” and assume it was a Japanese traveler, prompting the WWII Victory sign? Did he poke fun at the penchant of many Asians to make the peace sign when posing for pictures? If he did, was this even wrong?
My mind kept returning to the assumption that the captain had no patience for her because she was Chinese.
It took me some time to realize that such an assumption was not fair to the captain. Perhaps he was flashing the peace sign as a gesture of goodwill, wishing the passenger good luck. Perhaps he was just saying goodbye. Maybe he was indicating two seats were now available. I don’t know…and that’s the point. Our minds are too quick too assume. I was wrong.
What I Do Know: AA Botched This One
But here’s what I do know. AA really screwed this one up. She should not have been allowed to board in the first place if cellos are prohibited on a 737. Nor should she have been promised a seat on the next flight when it was also a 737. And while it is not inherently suspicious that two standbys were seated immediately after she was ejected, I can see why she would have questions about whether this was all a ploy because two seats were needed.
AA booked her a hotel room, provided her meal vouchers, and flew her home the next day on a 757. The airline has also apologized to her. AA should have moved two of the bulkhead passengers instead and re-seated Ms. Hu. Her husband claims he called to book her flights, specifically mentioning the second passengers would be a cello. If that is the case, I think AA should also refund her ticket and offer some additional miles or travel credit.
You can read the full passenger account here.
Humans have a tendency to either deny racism or exist or see racism even when it is not there. While there is circumstantial evidence for racism here, I am using this as another lesson not to jump to conclusions. We don’t know what was going through the captain’s mind.