A mixed-race family has demanded an apology from Southwest Airlines, after a flight attendant flagged them as suspicious, wrongly assuming the white mother was trafficking her biracial child.
Mary MacCarthy said her 10-year-old daughter, Moira, now “clams up” when they talk about how an airline employee and two police officers questioned them after their flight landed in Denver on 22 October.
“The whole thing is based on what I believe to be a racist assumption about a mixed-race family,” MacCarthy told the Denver Post.
After MacCarthy’s brother died, she and Moira traveled last-minute to Denver from Los Angeles – with a connection through San Jose – in order to attend the funeral. MacCarthy, a single mom, said her brother had been a father figure to Moira.
McCarthy said she and her daughter were shocked and sleep deprived when they boarded the plane to Denver last, because they were in the final boarding group. Onboard, other passengers moved so they would not have to be apart. MacCarthy tried to sleep while Moira listened to an audiobook.
When MacCarthy got off the plane in Denver and noticed the officers waiting, she said, she panicked, terrified another family member had died.
But it turned out a flight attendant suspected her of human trafficking, after she and Moira boarded last and asked others to switch seats so they could sit together.
The attendant claimed she never saw MacCarthy and Moira speak and that MacCarthy warned her daughter not to talk with the flight crew, NBC News reported.
MacCarthy denied that and said she and her daughter were “deeply traumatized by the assumption that just because we don’t have the same skin color we’re involved in a very serious crime”.
In video of the confrontation with police officers, Moira can be heard wailing while MacCarthy tries to explain why she and her daughter are traveling.
“It’s OK, sweetheart,” MacCarthy tells Moira.
“She doesn’t need to be scared,” an officer says. “Because you are not in any trouble whatsoever, OK?”
MacCarthy later tells the officers and a Southwest employee Moira “has already unfortunately been traumatized by the police in her life”.
A police report said the incident was “unfounded”, according to NBC News. But MacCarthy still received a follow-up call from a human trafficking unit investigator.
“Had this little girl been white there would have been not a raised eyebrow,” MacCarthy’s lawyer, David Lane, told NBC. “So race was the only factor that triggered this call to the police.
“It’s Southwest Airlines that I have an issue with. And I think this is a civil rights violation because they are causing a paying customer of theirs to have to undergo the trauma of being stopped by the police.”
Southwest told NBC it was “conducting a review of the situation internally” and “will be reaching out to the customer to address her concerns and offer our apologies for her experience traveling with us”.
A spokesperson told SFGate staff “undergo robust training on human trafficking”.
Other mixed-race families have been flagged as suspicious while traveling. A man on another Southwest flight was suspected of trafficking his adopted Chinese daughter on the way home from a trip to Florida. A Black woman flying Frontier Airlines with her white adoptive sister was questioned in Dallas.
MacCarthy told SFGate she travels with Moira’s birth certificate so she is “prepared for any questions”. She also said she understood the job of the Transportation Security Administration was to make sure they were “traveling under the proper circumstances”.
But that was different from “being accosted by armed police and being told that we’ve been acting suspiciously”, she said. “That’s not the same thing at all.”