United CEO Oscar Munoz gave up a multi-million dollar bonus last year over all the bad press the airline got in 2017. Maybe he'd better start saving for 2018: A Nigerian woman filed a lawsuit against United on Friday "for racial discrimination, denial of freedom and equality, negligence and for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
According to the complaint, a Nigerian woman named Queen Obioma and two minor children had flown from Lagos to Houston in 2016. They were schedule to fly to San Francisco on March 4 on Flight 404 and then on to Ontario, where the kids were to appear at appointments about attending school there. (Reportedly, many middle-class Nigerians have moved to Canada for a better quality of life and greater opportunities for their children.)
A white male passenger had her ticketed seat in business class and refused to move. She took another seat at the behest of a flight attendant.
The man went toward the cockpit. Obioma placed her luggage into the overhead bin, went to the restroom, and returned before the flight started. By then, the man was back and refusing to to move so she could take her seat. Finally, he moved enough for Obioma to sit down.
At that point, another attendant came up and asked Obioma to leave the plane. Once she did, another staff member said that the family would not be allowed to continue on the flight as the man who had her seat complained about her "pungent" odor.
The complaint claims that the staff then took the children off the plane and that the family had to wait five hours before getting another flight. The family had to extend their stay and reschedule the appointments.
The suit alleges that United "wrongfully singled out Ms. Obioma and her children because of her black race and Nigerian citizenship" and that the entire family was "embarrassed, humiliated, in shock, and puzzled."
Over the weekend, a United spokesperson provided a statement to MSN that said the company hadn't yet received the lawsuit and couldn't comment because the matter was pending.
The event should never have happened, whether asking someone to give up her seat or allowing one person to effectively take control of operations.
This wasn't a case of a Starbucks barista refusing to let a black man use the bathroom before making a purchase. The treatment of the family involved multiple people working together to implement and support a decision that was wrong in many ways from the very onset.
A company is responsible to its shareholders, of course. It has other responsibilities as well. There is what it owes employees who make success possible. What customers are due. And the duty a company has greater society.
The event happened two years ago, but as the suit shows, bad actions manage to remain and fester. People don't forget how they've been mistreated and increasingly it is becoming impossible for management to sweep something aside that smacks of racism, gender discrimination, or some other fundamental bigotry, too long excused and supported, and expect it to disappear.
The incident in this case will also undercut everything that United may think it has done to address its problems, especially when those problems frequently enough involved people being denied the flights they paid for.