American Airlines and United Airlines have asked law enforcement officials not to use their flights to relocate children who have been separated from parents at the border and some crew members have vowed not to work on any such flights.
In an op-ed published in the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday, Hunt Palmquist, a 29-year veteran at a “major U.S. airline,” vowed to refuse to work another flight on which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are transporting children to “relocation sites” after being separated from their families by immigration officials. The flight attendant goes on to detail the circumstances surrounding the two flights on which the Dallas-based flight attendant says he encountered the heartbreaking scenarios.
“I worked two flights (one to San Antonio and the other to McAllen) which proved to be two of the most disturbing flights I’ve ever experienced in my career,” Palmquist wrote. “On board these particular flights were ICE agents and migrant children (approximately four to eleven years old) who had been separated from their families and were being flown to a ‘relocation’ site. Since working the two flights, the images of those helpless children have burned into my psyche. The little children whose faces were full of fear, confusion, sadness and exhaustion left me somewhat traumatized as it occurred to me a few weeks later that I might as well have been a collaborator in their transport.”
In addition to promising never to be a part of another flight used for this purpose, Palmquist said that he personally knew of other colleagues who were in agreement to do the same. As it turns out, however, Palmquist and his coworkers may be spared the difficult decision between conscience and job security. Starting on Wednesday, major U.S. airlines, including American Airlines and United Airlines have publicly asked the U.S. government not to use the carrier’s flights to transport children for relocation in instances in which the minors have been forcibly separated from detained immigrant parents.
The unprecedented move by the airlines comes after a report from yet another cabin crew member of a flight on which 16 children were being involuntarily relocated after being removed from their families at the border. The secondhand account posted on social media was later confirmed by a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA).
“Through all the adversities we faced last evening with computer outages, cancellations and delays, nothing prepared me or my crew for 16 passengers,” the flight attendant related anonymously through a coworker’s Facebook account. “Sixteen. All dressed in black and gray cheap Walmart sweat suits, quietly boarding the 12:30am flight. Children! Thirty-two scared eyes looking straight forward dazed. We try to speak, yet none speak English. During the beverage service, one of the crew comes to me in tears. They can’t face these children that have been ripped from their families with a smile. These children were probably ranging in age from 11, to the most adorable little girl maybe 6 years old.”
Just hours after the post began circulating, the world’s largest carrier became the first to inform federal officials that the transport of children unjustly separated from their families would no longer be welcome on American Airlines flights.
“While we have carried refugees for non-profits and the government, many of whom are being reunited with family or friends, we have no knowledge that the federal government has used American to transport children who have been separated from their parents due to the recent immigration policy, but we would be extremely disappointed to learn that is the case,” AA officials wrote in an unusually terse statement. “We have therefore 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.”
United Airlines soon followed suit.
“Based on our serious concerns about this policy and how it’s in deep conflict with our company’s values, we have contacted federal officials to inform them that they should not transport immigrant children on United aircraft who have been separated from their parents,” United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz announced on Wednesday. “Our company’s mission is to connect people and unite the world. This policy and its impact on thousands of children is in deep conflict with that mission and we want no part of it.”
AFA officials say they have been urging all U.S. airlines to adopt similar policies. Frontier Airlines released a slightly less emphatic statement late Wednesday afternoon and union officials added that, “Alaska Airlines has been responsive to our concerns and we expect to hear more from them soon.”