A Russian airline forced five Indian American passengers to fly to Delhi, India instead of their original destination of New York because of their skin color, a racial discrimination complaint claims.
Aeroflot airlines staff reportedly threatened the group of US citizens, all of Asian descent, that they would be “deported” to India if they did not board the flight back to Delhi, The Independent reported.
The Americans were traveling from Delhi to New York on January 7, with a layover in Moscow, Russia. According to reports, their connecting flight to JFK International Airport was canceled because of heavy snow, leaving the group stranded.
They tried to book alternate flights, but were allegedly told by Aeroflot crew that no seats were available.
According to the complaint, the airline allegedly offered alternative connections to the United States to other American passengers with light skin.
The Indian American passengers were then given a choice to “go back to India” on a later flight or be “deported” to India by Russian officials because they did not have transit visas, according to the complaint. Under Russian law, the passengers could only remain in the country for 24 hours without visas.
The American passengers called the US embassy in Moscow, but the officer at the embassy was not able to get through to Aeroflot, the complaint claims.
“Although the officer on duty at the embassy repeatedly asked to speak with Aeroflot to correct the situation, Aeroflot employees refused to speak with him, instead reiterating their threat that the passengers would be deported and that if they did not return to India, Aeroflot would ‘make matters worse’ for them — including through criminal deportation and heavy fines.”
One of the passengers recorded an incident with an Aeroflot employee, which he posted on Facebook, where the employee tells the group they will be deported “back to India.” In the video the family argues with the employee that they should be “deported back to America,” since they are American citizens.
The employee storms away, but later returns with boarding passes for a flight to Delhi, The Independent reports.
The five passengers eventually boarded the India-bound flight, “fearing for their safety and feeling that they had no other choice after Aeroflot’s repeated threats,” the complaint reads. About 20 other passengers who had traveled from India were forced to return as well.
Once the family arrived in Delhi, they discovered there were no Aeroflot flights to New York for more than a week, The Independent reported.
Four of the five passengers spent thousands of dollars booking another flight on Qatar airlines to take them to the United States. The fifth flew back with Aeroflot six days later.
Each of the five missed several days of work or school. In a Facebook post, one wrote:
“I have lost a week of work (I will not be allowed to vacation this year) and faced tremendous mental stress. I have been flying for over 17+ years and never ever been harassed or treated this way.”
“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.”
“Aeroflot’s behavior is appalling and beyond any justification,” Juvaria Khan, staff attorney at Muslim Advocates, the firm representing the passengers, told The Independent. “DOT must conduct a full and thorough investigation and hold Aeroflot accountable for its discriminatory actions and ensure that no other travelers endure this type of mistreatment.”
Aeroflot denied any discrimanatory practicies in a statement to The Independent:
“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.”
The Russian airliner has previously been fined by American officials for violating US passenger protection rules.
Aeroflot did not return a request for comment.