What to Know
- The former dean of a university in New York City plans to file a lawsuit against United Airlines alleging racial discrimination
- Donna Cill, an African-American woman and ex-assistant academic dean for Columbia University, alleges the incident occurred last month
- In a statement, United Airlines said the company has “zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”
A former dean for a university in New York City announced Thursday she was suing United Airlines for alleged racial discrimination, assault, and false imprisonment after a confrontation with a flight attendant last month.
Donna Cill, a black woman who was previously the assistant academic dean for Columbia University, alleges that on April 22, as she was flying back home to New Jersey from India on a United Airlines flight with her 14-year-old daughter, she was verbally assaulted by a United Airlines employee, racially discriminated against and was falsely accused of committing a federal crime which led to her false imprisonment for allegedly interfering with a flight by federal authorities.
According to Cill, who is represented by civil rights attorneys Benjamin Crump and Jasmine Rand, the flight she and her daughter were on diverted enroute from a scheduled landing in New Jersey to Maine and United Airlines provided passengers little information about the sudden change.
Cill claims that after 15 hours in the air, the airlines informed passengers that when the plane landed in Maine, they were not allowed to deplane, and had to remain on the tarmac for an indefinite period of time.
After the announcement, Cill allegedly approached the supervising flight attendant to ask how long the plane would be on the tarmac in Maine. According to Cill, the flight attendant yelled at her, charged at her with clenched fists and said, “I’m going to get you.”
Cill said another flight attendant intervened in order to help her and she returned to her seat frightened.
According to Cill’s attorneys, white customers asked questions of the flight attendants and were not accused of a crime.
“The only person verbally assaulted, treated with physical aggression and hostility, and falsely accused of committing a federal crime to federal authorities was our client,” they say.
When the plane landed approximately 45 minutes later, federal law enforcement boarded the plane stating that United Airlines accused her of interfering with the flight which is a federal offense, Cill said. The agents allegedly interrogated her in front of her daughter and asked: “Are you even a US citizen?”
Cill claims another passenger filmed the incident because he feared for her safety.
“Every year I travel to different countries with my daughter to teach her to be a respectful global citizen,” Cill, who founded an organization affiliated with the United Nations, said, adding “United Airlines’ racist behavior, threats, and false accusations fly in the face of what I teach my daughter and my work as a girl child cross-cultural advocate.”
Cill’s attorneys, who are also representing African-American actress Cacilie Hughes in a separate case involving the airlines and alleged racial discrimination, are demanding United Airlines fire the employee involved in the alleged incident.
“United Airlines: How much evidence of your racist practices do you need? Do we need to lead a nationally concerted boycott before you understand that you should not expect Black dollars if you refuse to respect Black dignity? United Airlines we demand that you fire the employee whom committed a crime by falsely reporting that Dr. Cill violated a federal law immediately,” Crump and Rand said in a joint statement.
“I want my daughter to know that her life as a Black girl is equal to all other life, and when any person or company threatens her innate human rights that she has the strength to advocate for herself, just as I am standing up for her,” Cill said.
In a statement, United Airlines said the company has “zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind.”
United Airlines' statement goes on to say: “On multiple occasions during the flight, our crew notified customers about the need for a refueling stop in Bangor before reaching our final destination in Newark. Per standard procedure, CBP dispatched officers to meet our international flight upon landing in Bangor to provide crew clearance for re-entry into the United States. They also approached Ms. Cill to understand her concerns regarding the need to stop for fuel. After reading about Dr. Cill’s concerns on social media, we reached out to explain what happened and extended her compensation as a goodwill gesture.”