Man says airline stopped him on suspicion he was trafficking his children
By Michael Levenson
American Airlines has apologized to a Black musician who said that he was stopped on suspicion that he was trafficking his own children, who are biracial, on a flight last month.
Many airlines, including American, have adopted policies and training programs to prevent human trafficking and child exploitation.
But the experience described by David Ryan Harris, a guitarist and singer-songwriter who has performed with John Mayer, was the latest to draw attention to concerns that such programs may lead to racial discrimination.
Harris, 55, said that he and two of his children, Truman, 12, and Hendrix, 7, were flying on American Airlines from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Sept. 15 to see the Los Angeles Rams play the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.
About 30 minutes before the plane landed, Harris said, a flight attendant asked his children some questions, including what their names were. Harris said he had to prompt Hendrix, who is shy and had been woken up early to catch the flight, to respond.
After the plane landed, Harris said, he and his children were met at the top of the jet bridge by an American Airlines employee and four police officers.
“Apparently, a flight attendant had called ahead with some sort of concern that perhaps my mixed children weren’t my children because they were unresponsive during an interaction with her,” he said in one of several videos describing the episode that he posted on Instagram last month.
Harris added: “So we’re met, embarrassingly so, by this AA employee and police officers. They question my kids: ‘Are my kids OK?’ And I wanted to go through the roof. But I did not want my kids to see me handle the situation with anything other than grace and class.”
Harris said he and his children were eventually allowed to continue on to the baggage claim area but were not given an apology.
He said he filled out a complaint form and sent it to American Airlines. When the airline did not respond, he posted the Instagram videos, he said.
“Maybe……just maybe it isn’t a race thing, but when you don’t respond at all, I’m left to make sense of the altercation on my own,” he wrote on Instagram on Sept. 23. “No one said ‘sorry sir, there’s been an uptick in human trafficking and our policy is …….’ Nothing.”
This week, Harris posted a statement that he said he had received from American Airlines.
The statement said that an investigation had determined that “we and our flight attendant realized that our policies regarding suspected human trafficking were not followed,” and “our flight attendant realizes that their interaction and observations did NOT meet the criteria that human trafficking was taking place.”
“Our flight attendant in question wanted to make sure that you were aware that they sincerely offer a heartfelt apology to you and your family for their actions, and the results that their actions generated,” the statement said.
In a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday, American Airlines said: “We strive to create a positive, welcoming environment for everyone who travels with us and apologize for any misunderstanding that may have occurred.”
Harris said he appreciated and accepted the apology.
“I didn’t (and still don’t) think that a slow or tentative response from a 7 year old on an early morning flight should be enough criteria to have the authorities called,” he wrote on Instagram this week. “I’ve never begrudged the red flag, I’ve always begrudged the apparent lack of diligence on the part of the flight attendant.”
In August, Mary MacCarthy, a single parent who is white, sued Southwest Airlines, accusing it of racial discrimination.
MacCarthy said she and her 10-year-old daughter, Moira, had just deplaned at Denver International Airport in October 2021 when two police officers met them at the gate, calling them by name and notifying them that they had been reported for suspicious behavior.
Unbeknown to MacCarthy, a flight attendant had suspected her of human trafficking, she said.
“I’ve been raising a biracial daughter for 10 years,” MacCarthy told the Times in August. “I know about racial profiling, and I know that ‘suspicious’ is a code word for minority.”
In response to his family’s experience, Harris said he had started a petition calling on the Transportation Security Administration to require that children younger than 18 have identification when traveling with their parents or guardians.
“I think it removes the onus from flight attendants to have to make determinations based on conjecture, no matter how well intentioned,” Harris wrote on Instagram.