Thursday, December 1, 2016

United Airlines: Religious Discrimination of Muslim Passengers (2015/2016)

Following the events of September 11, 2001, airports and airlines across the country and the world have been taking specific measures to improve security. The goal of improving security for air travel is to ensure that passengers and employees are having a safe experience. While the focus on safety is of major importance, both the measures that these companies have taken, and the scrutiny from the media, have caused a build up of racism. There has been a severe amount of lashing out at the Muslim community since 9/11. Most significantly, it has been noted that people of Islamic faith have been patted down, searched, and refused service while visiting airports or while onboard flights. A prime example of this mistreatment is present onboard United Airlines flights.
Tahera Ahmad, the woman denied
a Diet Coke mid-flight
In May 2015, Tahera Ahmad was mid-flight when she asked the flight attendant for a can of Diet Coke, and was refused. Ahmad later accused United Airlines of Islamophobia, seeing as how she was not only wearing her hijab at the time of the incident, but was told by the flight attendant that they feared she would use the can as a weapon. The flight attendant had given another passenger a can of beer, but told Ahmad that it was against company policy to provide cans. In Ahmad’s case, the employee was later removed from their position. Ahmad is not the only person of Muslim faith that has been denied service on United Airlines (Mai-Duc, 2015). In a similar incident in April 2016, a Muslim family in Chicago was denied a booster seat for their young child. The family had researched online and knew that the company provided the seats, but the flight attendant ignored their requests. Later, the pilot asked them to leave the aircraft, and the family claimed discrimination. In response, the pilot told them it was a matter of safety (Pashman, 2016).

There are several relevant stakeholders in this case. To begin, it is obvious that anyone who practices Islam is a stakeholder. Due to the practice of their religion, they are subject to this kind of scrutiny. Another relevant group of stakeholders in this situation are the employees of United Airlines, as well as United Airlines top executives. These actions not only reflect poorly on the employees involved, but on the company as a whole. Other stakeholders include other passengers and family members of both employees and passengers. The passengers and their family members experience a disruption in their travels. The employees and their families experience not only judgment from the media, but in some cases suffer from the employees being out of a job.

United Airlines, the company that
refused a Diet Coke to Ahmad
Individualism is the economic theory that states that the main goal of a business is to increase its profits, while keeping actions within the scope of the law (Desjardins, 2014). From an individualist’s point of view, United Airlines is not being true to this theory. If the main goal of the airline is to maximize profits, then turning away passengers on a discriminatory basis is not a smart decision. When scandals like this come about, it is detrimental to the business. People may not want to fly with United if they think that the company has a discriminatory background, and may choose to take their business to another airline. The company has also stated that their actions have been taken in order to increase safety, meaning that this is their main focus. Under individualism, United is not being true to the main goal of business because they are not trying to maximize profits, rather they are trying to maximize safety.

The focus of utilitarianism is to maximize the overall good of a situation. Utilitarianism defines an act as ethical if the actions in question produced an outcome that can be perceived as good (Desjardins, 2014). In the United Airlines case, a utilitarian would say that these actions did not maximize the overall good, and are therefore unethical. Not only was travel disturbed for all passengers on these flights, but the people that were directly effected were highly inconvenienced. Ahmad was shamed by another passenger (Mai-Duc, 2015). In addition, the family in Chicago were not able to travel when they needed to (Pashman 2016). Also, both parties suffered from media scrutiny as well as the emotional damage brought on by the discrimination. The family in Chicago probably had to explain to their young children why they couldn’t stay on the plane, and that type of emotional trauma will follow them their entire lives. In addition, the employee in Ahmad’s case was terminated and, in both cases, the airline was branded as a discriminatory company. This situation produces almost no good for any of the parties involved, and therefore a utilitarian would not consider these actions ethical.

United Airlines logo

Kantianism is an ethical theory that says companies must be respectful of others when making decisions. Therefore, if an action is harmful to another party, it will be considered unethical, even if the outcome is good. Kantianism means that we must not use others to reach our outcomes (Desjardins, 2014). A Kantian thinker would perceive the United Airlines case as an unethical one. The employees involved were being harmful to others through their actions. Both Ahmad and the family from Chicago were not only publicly humiliated, but disturbed during their travel time. While the outcome the employees were seeking (safety for other passengers and crew) may have seemed to be a good one, the parties effected were harmed too much to make the actions justifiable under Kantianism. There was no other reason other than personal prejudice to consider either of these situations as unsafe. Therefore, there was no respect from the employees to the passengers, and this situation is unethical under Kantianism.

Virtue Theory

Virtue theory is the theory that focuses on specific character traits and values to evaluate an ethical situation (Desjardins, 2014). In this situation, the company is being dishonest and the employees are exhibiting personal prejudice. Both dishonesty and prejudice are perceived as negative character traits. When the employees chose to deny the Muslim passengers their simple requests, they were exhibiting these traits. They lied about the availability of specific items onboard, and about company policy. This dishonesty and prejudice was a direct reflection of the employees' character. By acting on such traits, United Airlines and their employees are being unethical under virtue theory because they are acting with negative character traits.

Ethics Evaluation
Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines

United Airlines' employees are being completely unethical in this case. The employees are refusing service that they have rightly promised to all customers. They cannot give one customer an unopened can of beer, and then tell another that it is company policy to withhold unopened cans of soda. In addition, the United Airlines website had clearly stated that families would have access to special seating for children. Therefore, it is so very obvious that they were withholding the harness from the family in Chicago for discriminatory reasons. While the airline industry is an industry that is clearly skeptical of specific races and religions, it does not justify the actions of these United Airlines’ employees. There is absolutely no excuse for why a family was removed from a flight if they simply wanted a safer seat for their child. Businesses can’t select who they want to serve and who they do not. They made certain promises to all paying customers. Upon accepting payment, the airline agreed to provide these services, and they are going back on their word by doing these things.

Action Plan United Airlines needs to create a formal action plan to ensure that they not only restore a credible public opinion, but regain the trust of their customers. It is highly important that they release an affirming mission statement to the public. United’s current mission statement states that they are committed to a diversified work place. However, the company makes no mention of the fact that they want a diversified customer base, or to provide a service free from discrimination (Our United Customer Commitment). A more accurate mission statement would go along the lines of, “We at United Airlines are committed to providing a travel experience that is not only safe, but free from unfair treatment, harassment, and discrimination. We want our customers to have a very safe, pleasurable experience on our aircrafts.”

"Diversity flies with us" banner to support diversity on airplanes
In order to accomplish this new mission statement, it is important that the executives at United follow a simple plan. First, they can issue a press release or hold a conference in which they explain the issues at hand and reveal the new mission statement. They must also be sure that the employees involved in these incidents are punished effectively. Clearly, they’ve begun to take the right steps by terminating the flight attendant from Ahmad’s case. After taking appropriate action, I think it is important that the company create new guidelines and procedures for employee punishment in such situations. They should issue these procedures to the public to show that they are serious about the situation. Lastly, United should look into any and all complaints about discrimination onboard their aircrafts and take appropriate action for each.
With this mission statement and set of actions, I believe that United Airlines will regain public respect and trust.

DesJardins, J. R. (2014). An Introduction to Business Ethics. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Mai-Duc, C. (2015, June 3). Flight attendant who denied unopened soda can to Muslim will no
longer serve United customers. Retrieved September, 2016, from
Myers, A. (2016, April 02). Muslim family kicked off flight demands apology from United
Airlines. Retrieved September, 2016, from
Our United Customer Commitment. (n.d.). Retrieved September, 2016, from
Pashman, M. B. (2016, April 15). Muslim family kicked off United flight plans to file complaint.
Sanchez, R. (2015, June 3). United apologizes after discrimination claim. Retrieved September,
2016, from

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