On Wednesday, a number of U.S.-based airlines took a very public stance on a highly controversial immigration policy which has drawn both national and international condemnation. Their message was clear – airlines were in the business of bringing people together, not tearing families apart.
The airlines were reacting to a change in the way that the United States government deals with illegal immigrants who cross the Southern border from Latin America. A policy shift initiated by the Trump Administration now see’s immigrants being taken into custody rather than being dealt with on a misdemeanour charge.
As a result, families have been separated because many of the detention facilities aren’t designed to house children. Estimates suggest more than 2,300 children, including toddlers, have been separated from their parents in the weeks following the policy change. A now infamous photo of a young child crying as she was separated from her mother was shown in newspapers and TV networks around the world.
With facilities to look after so many children in short supply and the limited number of beds spread across the United States, critics of the policy quickly started asking how the government was moving these children around the country. The spotlight very quickly landed on carriers like American Airlines and Alaska who have contracts with the U.S. government.
Reacting to a loud chorus of dismay from its own flight attendants and other employees, American Airlines was quick to voice its opinion of the immigration policy:
“The family separation process that has been widely publicized is not at all aligned with the values of American Airlines. We bring families together, not apart,” the carrier said.
American added that it had “requested the federal government to immediately refrain from using American for the purpose of transporting children who have been separated from their families due to the current immigration policy,”
“We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it. We have every expectation the government will comply with our request and we thank them for doing so.”
Oscar Munoz, the chief executive of United Airlines said the immigration policy was “in deep conflict with our company’s values,” and confirmed that United had made it clear that it did not want to participate in the carriage of separated immigrant children.
Alaska released a similar statement saying it did “not support the recent immigration policy,” and that the airline was not aware of having carried any immigrant children who had been separated from their families.
The carrier too said it had informed the government that it did not want to do so.
The problem, however, is that airlines don’t really have much of a choice to refuse a government contract and are actually legally obliged to do so. That could well put the airlines and their employees of a collision course with the authorities.
The Association of Flight Attendants says some of its members are “struggling with the question of participating in a process that they feel is deeply immoral.” The union says it has fielded a “significant” amount of communication from concerned flight attendants who are demanding more information from the government.
They say the issue could turn into a safety and security risk as tensions rise and both passengers and crew react to even the possibility of a child being flown by an airline for the purpose of separating them from their family.
The union which represents flight attendants at American Airlines, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said it applauded the airline for making it “abundantly clear” that the immigration policy ran contrary to the beliefs of many staffers.
For now, an executive order signed by President Trump yesterday should stop the forced separation of families at the border. Although critics have said the order is unworkable and concerns continue that children who have already been seperated will not yet be reunited with their parents.
While many U.S. airlines have said they are not aware of having flown any immigrant children – and have made it very clear that they don’t want, the sad truth is that at some point they may very well be expected to do exactly that.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.