American Airlines CEO Douglas Parker said Thursday his airline can do a better job in race relations with its customers.
Two days after the NAACP issued a “travel advisory” saying that it has noticed “a pattern of disturbing incidents reported by African-American passengers, specific to American Airlines,” Parker told Wall Street analysts that executives are disappointed with the criticism because American prides itself on its “inclusiveness and diversity.” But he also said there is room for improvement.
“Discrimination, exclusion and unconscious biases are enormous problems that no one has mastered, and we would never suggest that we have it all figured out either,” he said. “What we know is we want to keep learning and we want to be even better.”
He repeated an earlier statement that he hoped to meet with leaders of the NAACP about its complaints.
“Organizations like the NAACP can help us. So we welcome the opportunity to work with them,” he said. “Indeed, we are excited about it and enthusiastic to sit down and listen and learn together.”
Parker’s statement Thursday goes beyond his initial response Wednesday, in which he said he was disappointed with the advisory and vowed, “We do not and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
The civil rights group’s statement earlier this week cited four examples of black passengers who were forced to give up their seats or were removed from flights.
The group said the incidents “suggest a corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias,” and advised travelers to exercise caution.
“Booking and boarding flights on American Airlines could subject them [to] disrespectful, discriminatory or unsafe conditions,” the advisory said.
But Parker’s statement Thursday was encouraging, said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy and policy. He said it recognized the need to address problems.
“I’m delighted to see that American Airlines is at least saying the right things now,” Shelton told CNNMoney. “Our hope is that they are able to follow through with something much more comprehensive.”
The NAACP has called for boycotts of companies and places in the past, but this was only the second time it has issued a travel advisory, Shelton said.
Over the summer, it issued an advisory for travel to Missouri, citing several instances of discrimination as reason for black visitors to use “extreme caution.”
The decision to issue a warning about American Airlines came after the NAACP fielded roughly two dozen complaints over the past two years, Shelton said.
The decision was also driven by higher-profile incidents. Civil rights activist Tamika Mallory said she was removed from a New York-bound flight after her seat was changed without her consent.
Shelton stressed that the American Airlines advisory was not a boycott. He likened it to a warning from the State Department when it deems a country dangerous to visit.
“They have to make a decision,” he said of black fliers who are thinking of booking on American. “Is that the airline you want to get on? But they’ll have the information, the experiences that have occurred, and hopefully very soon, how American Airlines is going to respond to this, so they can make that informed decision.”
Shelton said the NAACP has received complaints about other airlines, but none as consistently as American.
“There is a pattern that has come up — a pattern and a practice that is deeply concerning,” he said.
He added that his office in Washington has received two dozen complaints about American since the advisory was posted, including some from employees who have raised concerns about their experiences inside the company.