Russian airline sent American passengers back to India 'because of their skin colour'

Aeroflot allegedly told US citizens they faced being 'deported' to Delhi after connecting flight from Moscow to New York cancelled

Chris Baynes
Tuesday 27 March 2018 12:08
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Russian airline Aeroflot deports Americans due to skin colour

A Russian airline forced five Asian-American passengers to fly to Delhi instead of New York because of their skin colour, according to a racial discrimination complaint.

Aeroflot staff warned the US citizens, all of south Asian descent, they would be “deported” to India if they refused to board the flight.

The Americans were travelling from Delhi to the US on 7 January but were stranded during a stopover in Moscow when their connecting flight to JFK International Airport was cancelled due to heavy snow in New York.

Aeroflot told them there were no available seats on alternative flights and they would not be provided with any accommodation in Moscow.

But the airline is alleged to have offered alternative connections to the US to white Americans who had been on the same flight.

The Asian American passengers were also denied transit visas, meaning under Russian law they could not leave Sheremetyevo Airport or remain in the country for longer than 24 hours.

An Aeroflot employee told the group they instead had to “go back to India” on a later flight or face being forcibly “deported” to India by Russian officials, according to a formal complaint filed by lawyers acting for the passengers.

The passengers rang the US embassy in Moscow and were told “it would be illegal for Aeroflot to deport United States citizens to third countries against their will”, the complaint reads.

It adds: “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.”

A video filmed by one of the passengers shows an Aeroflot worker, identified only as Mikhail, warning the group “they will be deported” if they have not left the country within 23 hours. He then slams one of their US passports down on a counter in frustration and storms off after the group protest that they are American citizens.

He later returned to give them boarding passes for a flight to Delhi.

The five passengers who brought the complaint eventually boarded the flight to India, “fearing for their safety and feeling that they had no other choice after Aeroflot’s repeated threats”, says the complaint. About 20 Asian passengers who had travelled from India were also forced to return, it adds.

After arriving in Delhi, they were informed there were no Aeroflot flights to New York for more than a week. Four of the passengers involved in the complaint spent thousands of pounds booking one-way flights to Washington DC through Qatar Airways instead. The fifth, Anshul Agrawal, flew to Miami through Aeroflot six days later.

He later wrote in a Facebook post: “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.”

All five passengers missed several days of work or school.

The complaint adds: “What should have been a routine return flight home turned into a harrowing ordeal after Aeroflot staff steadfastly refused to allow American customers who were or who were perceived to be of South Asian descent to return to the United States, ‘deporting’ them instead to India — all while providing customers on the same flight who were or who were perceived to be white Americans with accommodations and connecting flights to America.

“Aeroflot’s treatment of American citizens was not only unjust and unfair, it also violates Aeroflot’s internal protocols as well as federal aviation and non-discrimination laws.”

The complaint was filed to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) by civil rights legal organisation Muslim Advocates and litigation specialist law firm Lewis Baach. It was brought on behalf of passengers Marc Fernandes, Shahana Islam, Sabiha Islam, Bakiul Islam, and Mr Agrawal.

“Aeroflot’s behaviour is appalling and beyond any justification,” said Juvaria Khan, staff attorney at Muslim Advocates. “DOT must conduct a full and thorough investigation and hold Aeroflot accountable for its discriminatory actions and ensure that no other travellers endure this type of mistreatment.”

Although Aeroflot is Russia's flag carrier, the company has previously been fined by American authorities for violating US passenger protection rules.

Waleed Nassar, a partner in Lewis Baach, said: “This complaint is to ensure that a clear and unequivocal message is sent worldwide to any airline that chooses to contract with United States citizens and to offer flights to the United States: discrimination against any United States citizen on any basis – be it racial, religious, perceived ethnic origin or sexual orientation – is simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Aeroflot told 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 characterisation in the complaint."

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