We've all had bad customer service experiences. We've probably all got an air travel story or two to share.  

It will be hard to top this one however, as it involves five U.S. citizens traveling on a Russian airline--along with alleged blatant racism, and a 7,200-mile detour.

The five Americans were traveling from Delhi to New York City on Aeroflot earlier this year, and they say that the airline treated white passengers and ethnically South Asian U.S. citizens differently during a stopover in Moscow.

Ultimately, they claim Aeroflot forced the ethnically South Asian U.S. citizens to turn around and fly all the way back to India.

Here's what happened, the legal claim--and whether anything can really come of it.

"Mihkail" in Moscow

The incident took place January 7, according to a legal complaint, when there were big snowstorms in the eastern U.S.. Airports were closed, and the complaint says that the passengers learned when they landed in Moscow that their connecting flight from Moscow to New York had been canceled.  

Bad news under any circumstances, but Russia apparently has a law that bans anyone without a visa from staying in the country for more than 24 hours--even under these kinds of circumstances. So, Aeroflot told them that waiting it out for a couple of days in a hotel in Moscow wouldn't be an option.

However, while white passengers were allegedly allowed to stay in an airport lounge while they waited, and ultimately were sent to New York on later flights, the five ethnically South Asian passengers say they were treated very differently. 

As captured on a video posted to Facebook (and embedded at the end of this article), one Aeroflot employee with a nametag reading "Mihkail" told only the ethnically South Asian Americans that they'd have to go to India.

Next time, Qatar Airways?

"As Mikhail grew increasingly frustrated and angry, he began threatening the travelers with civil and criminal sanctions, including forfeiture of their Aeroflot tickets if they refused to accept that they were 'Indians' who had to return 'back to India,'" the complaint says.

The five passengers say they called the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and were told that they were in the right, and as U.S. citizens they shouldn't be sent to India. However, they were also warned that they did not want to risk becoming entangled in the Russian criminal system or going through the official deportation process.

So, they flew back to India--where they ultimately wound up purchasing one-way tickets to the U.S. on Qatar Airways, at a cost of several thousand dollars, to avoid having to travel through Russia again.

I asked Aeroflot for their side of the story, and a New York-based spokesperson emailed me a statement:

"We clearly fell short of our customary high standards of service in this incident, which occurred more than two months ago, and indeed we contacted the passengers immediately afterwards to offer our apologies. However, our thorough internal investigation established that this was not a case of discrimination based on appearance, and we do not accept this characterization in the complaint."

Can the U.S. really do anything?

The five passengers--named Marc Fernandes, Shahana Islam, Sabiha Islam, Bakiul Islam, and Anshul Agrawal--filed their complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings in Washington.

As reprehensible as the allegations are however, it's not clear to me that any agency can actually do anything for the five passengers. They're Americans after all, and the events all took place between Moscow and Delhi. 

But one of the lawyers involved, Johnathan Smith of the legal advocacy and educational organization Muslim Advocates, told me in an email that he believes the U.S. agency has jurisdiction to ensure that foreign air carriers comply with U.S. laws.

"We are hoping that USDOT will expertise its jurisdiction and conduct a full and fair investigation into this matter and ensure that Aeroflot is complying with its legal obligations," Smith said.

Here's the Facebook video showing "Mikhail's" interactions with the passengers. At this point it seems they'd been stuck in the Moscow airport for several hours, waiting for any news about how or when they'd be getting home.

Home to the United States, that is--not India.

Published on: Mar 30, 2018
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