NEW YORK: In a shocking and bizarre incident, a Caucasian female stewardess on a United Airlines flight earlier this year, held the arm of an Indian American CEO, Shankar Iyer, flying on a golf trip from Newark, New Jersey to San Diego, California, and told him, “I normally don’t associate this color with such entitlement,” adding, after pointing to her arm, “You have to be this color for such things.” The retort came after Iyer informed the stewardess he is a Premier 1K member and might be entitled to discounted/complimentary snacks, having ordered a box of pita chips with hummus.
The incident happened on January 25, 2017 on flight UA – 1621, from Newark to San Diego.
Shankar Iyer is the founder and CEO of Viteos Fund Services, based in Somerset, New Jersey, which deals in financial services for hedge funds and private equity funds.
Prior to founding Viteos, Shankar was the President and CEO of Silverline Technologies, an IT services company, and led Silverline to its listing on the NYSE as the first Indian IT services company to be listed on the big board.
In several repeated emails to Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United, and to United’s Customer Care service – a copy of which was received by News India Times – Iyer recounted the bizarre racial discrimination he encountered, which has left him “disturbed”, “shaken”, “shocked” and “fuming”.
Iyer also narrated that he recounted the experience to his wife and children who are 17 and 14-year-old, and it was the reaction from his daughter that prompted him to confront United with the racial discrimination he experienced.
“Clearly this incident has shaken me and has not left my mind and normally I am not bothered about such things. But when my 14 yo daughter told me that I am committing more injustice by keeping quiet and not addressing this with the airline; because this woman could continue to do this to others; it prompted me to write this email,” Shankar wrote to Munoz.
Shankar noted that he is a loyal United Airlines patron and has been a Premier1K status customer for over three years.
“It’s evident that I have made UA my preferred carrier on every instance possible even though I have had a choice,” he wrote.
Here is the sequence of events as written by Iyer, excerpted from his email (sic):
“I was seated in 8C; my friend Venu Mukkumala was seated in 8B and another friend S Mahase was seated in 8D.
After we took off, the stewardess who was servicing the coach section of the flight came along with the beverage cart and began serving from row 7. I would like to point out here that she was the only one servicing us on this flight and she was a Caucasian female (am only mentioning this because of what followed – see below).
After we ordered our beverages, I told her I would pay for it with ‘beverage coupons’ which were in my bag in the overhead and I promptly handed over the beverage coupons as soon as the trolley moved behind my seat.
A few minutes later, when she returned I asked for some snacks and specifically asked for the ‘pita chips with hummus’ box which we had seen in the in-flight magazine. As soon as she brought it, she asked us, how we would like to pay for it. Even as my friend in 8B was offering his credit card, I mentioned to the stewardess that I am a Premier 1K member as I thought we may be entitled to discounted /complimentary food.
What happened next was shocking to say the least :::::
The stewardess held my forearm next to hers and said ” I NORMALLY DON’T ASSOCIATE THIS COLOR (pointing to my arm with her forefinger of the other hand) WITH SUCH ENTITLEMENT. ” she continued with “YOU HAVE TO BE THIS COLOR (pointing to her arm) FOR SUCH THINGS”……..and she laughed and handed me 2 boxes of pita chips & hummus and said “you can have them …no no don’t have to pay”
I was so shocked that I almost did not believe she said that to me. If you haven’t figured, I have to state here – I am an Asian Indian male by birth and thus possess skin tone much darker than hers.
She continued to make conversation with me and my friends about how the political environment in the country has gotten so bad ; questioning the candidates we had for President – first stating that she did not vote at all and then continuing to talk about how it’s important to keep the country safe and eventually stating that she voted for Donald Trump.
I was so shocked that I asked both my friends sitting next to me if they heard what she said or if I was crazy. Both confirmed that they too were shocked and Mike said, he was astonished to see her lift my arm and hold it next to hers and make a comment.
I was ready to ask her if she really meant what she said and was fuming but also did not believe that it actually happened because it was so unreal that someone would say such a thing. My friend Venu pulled me down and insisted that she was only saying it in jest and I should forget it. I kept arguing with him that I was offended and normally I am a very tolerant person.
After much discussion, Venu convinced me that we were on a fun golf trip and we should not let it be ruined by a stray comment from someone.
I was so disturbed about the incident that I shared it with a close friend over the weekend who encouraged me to write to you about my experience in order to not let such behavior go uncorrected.
I still decided there was little I could do to educate a woman who had a poor view about diversity or didn’t understand what ‘discrimination’ was all about. It did irk me that how could an airline like UA not train it’s staff about such things or even look for such weaknesses in its employees.
I came home on Tuesday and shared this incident with my wife and children who are 17 & 14. Clearly this incident has shaken me and has not left my mind and normally I am not bothered about such things. But when my 14 yo daughter told me that I am committing more injustice by keeping quiet and not addressing this with the airline; because this woman could continue to do this to others; it prompted me to write this email.
I am unsure if writing this email to you will give me comfort on reducing my angst about the incident; but at a minimum I want the foll.
-an apology from the stewardess for what she said to me
-a confirmation from your firm that she is being reprimanded for her behavior and the necessary disciplinary action is taken
-a confirmation that she and other employees are made to appreciate & respect diversity and educate her on what is ‘discrimination’ and how terrible it can be for the person subjected to such behavior
On a larger note, I travel EWR-BOM very often on the UA non stop. I have heard from several other asian/indian customers about how poorly they get treated by UA crew and they strongly feel it’s targeted by crew of a different race. I did not pay much attention to their complaints but I have seen such reports in social media (facebook /twitter) especially by coach class passengers.
Please take a poll of your coach passengers on the India-US flights to ascertain their perception of the service by UA crew.
Also, I get a survey request from UA after every flight I take; but ironically it’s only sent to me when I fly business – not coach. Please figure why?
I am pointing this above matter about the India flights because if your firm doesn’t address this soon; this could blow up into a problem of mammoth proportion.
I am hoping this email gets your attention and I get a response on how you plan to address this specific issue and the larger issue on the India sector.
My contact details are here below.
Despite his repeated emails to Munoz and United Customer Care – in fact, four reminders in 20 days – Iyer has yet to get a response from them, apart from a regulation reply from Customer Care which informed him they are “in receipt of your email. We appreciate you taking time to contact us.” In the e-mail United wrote that somebody from the Executive Services would be in touch with him “within 24-72 hours.”
That’s yet to happen.
In one of his later emails to Munoz, Iyer expresses disappointment at his plaint not been addressed, and wrote: “I guess I have no choice but to pursue other means to have my complaint about being discriminated heard.”
On February 23, Darrell Simpson, from Corporate Insurance – Analyst, United, wrote a brief email to Iyer, that “we are in the process of investigating this matter further and have contacted our inflight management team to obtain statements from the crew of flight #1621 on January 25, 2017.”
Iyer wrote back to Simpson thanking him for his response, adding, “I hope you are not telling me that this is the first time someone is contact the crew about this because its nearly a month and what may have been etched in my memory for the rest of my life may not be something the crew may remember after so many days,” adding, “I made myself very clear on what my expectations are and need to know how United is addressing this matter”.
In an interview to News India Times, Iyer said that it’s “terrible” that despite his repeated emails to Munoz, he only got a computer generated message, and finally the response he got was from somebody in Insurance who thought he wanted money for his claim.
“I and my company have been loyal customers of United,” said Shankar. “There is a failure in this lady (stewardess) discriminating, but there is a bigger failure in United not reaching out to me.”
Shankar said that with the recent incident involving the Chinese American doctor from Kentucky, David Dao, who was dragged out bloodied from a United Airlines flight, it’s “obvious that United has repeatedly failed its customers”.
Shankar also revealed that when he spoke to Simpson, and asked if the stewardess remembers him, he was told that investigation had revealed that she did remember him, but the stewardess had “denied” that she said anything discriminatory to him. He was also told that other passengers on that flight – apart from his to friends – were being contacted, but nobody as yet, has corroborated the words exchanged between Iyer and the stewardess.
Shankar hired a civil litigation lawyer two weeks ago, and is in the process of suing United Airlines.
In a statement, Rajiv Khanna, President, India-America Chamber of Commerce, came down hard on United.
“Needless to say, such conduct by a carrier heavily involved in U.S.-India trade & commerce, does not further its cause, which is deeply disturbing to this chamber,” said Khanna.