An American Airlines passenger says a flight attendant called the police on her for the apparent infraction of “flying while fat and black.”
Amber Phillips, a 28-year-old writer and co-host of the podcast “Black Joy Mixtape,” said the flight attendant called the police on her following a 30-minute flight Thursday to Washington, D.C., apparently because a white woman felt uncomfortable sitting next to her.
The incident began as a verbal dispute aboard the short regional flight aboard a small plane out of North Carolina, and ended with two cops questioning Phillips on the tarmac after they were summoned by a flight attendant.
Phillips tweeted "The cops were called on me for flying while fat & Black" and she told VICE News she felt she was profiled by the white employee because of her appearance.
“Because of the intersections of my identity, a black woman who takes up space, this is what my life could look like just because I dare to exist,” Phillips said.
Phillips said there was immediate tension between her and the white female passenger in the seat next to her over space in the two-seat row they were sharing.
“I thought, ‘I really hope this woman isn’t mean to me… because I’m fat and black,’” Phillips said.
But soon they began arguing, because, Phillips said, the other passenger didn’t want any physical contact with her.
“She kept being very aggressive and finally goes, ‘Can you move over?’” But Phillips said she had no space to move into, and said she found the interaction awkward and embarrassing.
“So the plane takes off and I’m so sad,” Phillips said. “I have my hands folded in my lap. I just kept thinking, this is how fat people are treated on planes. Period.”
Once they had landed, Phillips says she took a photo of how they were sitting to document how small the seats were.
Her documentation made her seatmate audibly uncomfortable and she apparently told a flight attendant that Phillips was harassing her. Phillips was already off the plane and on a shuttle bus to the airport when one of the flight attendants asked her to get off.
“I asked why, and she said, ‘I’m calling security, I’m calling the cops and this bus isn’t moving,’” Phillips said.
When Phillips got off the shuttle, she says an officer who had previously spoken to her seatmate was waiting for her. Phillips said he asked for her identification and told her he was investigating the incident as an assault. She said he never asked her for a statement.
“So I stepped back and made sure my hands are visible,” she said. Phillips eventually left the tarmac after she confirmed she wasn’t being detained, got back to the main airport area, and went home.
The incident follows a series of apparent racial profiling incidents at high-profile businesses, including the trespassing arrest last month of two black men who were waiting for a third friend to join them at Starbucks for a cup of coffee. The national conversation led Starbucks to announce it will close down its U.S. stores on May 29 for employee anti-bias training.
This is also just the latest scandal American Airlines has undergone lately: They are currently being sued for the death of a sick passenger, the NAACP sent a warning of flying while black on the airplanes, and most recently, a flyer found a dead rat in her suitcase.
American Airlines told VICE News that the flight attendant called the police on behalf of Phillips’ seatmate after the two passengers got into a verbal altercation.
“Upon landing in DCA shortly after 8 p.m. ET, one of the passengers requested to be escorted off the aircraft due to the altercation continuing,” American Airlines said in an emailed statement. “The Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority Police Department was called to assist and removed both passengers. We take claims of discrimination very seriously and are continuing to investigate the details of this situation. We have reached out directly to the customers for more information.”
The Washington police said in an emailed statement that, “Upon arrival on the scene, Airports Authority police asked both passengers to exit the shuttle to protect their privacy and to allow for an investigation. Both passengers complied with police requests and it was determined that there was no immediate threat to passenger safety. There were no arrests, no charges were filed, and both passengers continued on their way.”
Even so, Phillips, formerly a frequent flyer with American Airlines, said she wouldn’t use their services again.
“Everyone just participated in policing me,” Phillips said. “The CEO… needs to make sure this isn’t happening. These are decisions made by people. [American Airlines] aided in all of this. I want my money back, my flyer miles back, I’m so tired.”
The other passenger could not be identified or contacted by press time.
Cover image: An American Airlines plane takes off from Los Angeles International Airport on February 27, 2018. (Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)