Racism against African people is finding safe haven in the international air transport – Travel services industry

As the transport – travel services industry across the world builds strategies to help cushion effects of COVID-19 pandemic, the last thing any major stakeholder in the industry will want are obstacles in the way of the recovery process from the unprecedented impact of the pandemic on the industry. Moreover, as travel ‘is generally limited to those considered “Essential” It naturally behoves the major stakeholders in the above industry to become more creative in developing services that encourage travel and the patronizing of hospitality services while on the move. It is therefore shocking when the stakeholders in the industry permit racism against black people to permeate into their operations and service provision.

As issues around marginalization and/or oppression of people of colour based on socially constructed racial hierarchies that privilege white people continue to attract international outrage and condemnation – while steering reform, one industry that has not been critically interrogated with regards to institutionalized racism and where reform is urgently required is the air transport – travel services sector.

Two months ago, Walter Mandela took to his twitter handle @Mandela_Esq to express his outrage over degrading treatment at a restaurant at Istanbul International Airport, alleging thatit was racially inclined .

According to Mandela, “The @tadindanadolu restaurant at Istanbul International Airport is blatantly racist!!!! While in transit flying@TurkishAirlines; I and other black travellers who went to the restaurant were subjected to degrading treatment by the @tadindanadolu staff.

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“Upon engaging the management; they were not constructive – instead explaining the actions of their staff as a “misunderstanding” since the staff don’t speak English and think all black clients are cleaners at the airport hence the bad treatment!! Couldn’t file a formal complaint with the airport authorities/Police due to technical/procedural/time issues. “The restaurant is a disgrace to the @tadindanadolu franchise, airport and country. Please investigate the claims and take action. No other black travellers should go through similar indignities and racial humiliation.”

The tweet was corroborated by a video recording of the incident posted by Honore Mvula @honoremvula21 that went viral on Twitter. “But why?! In 2021 people still behave like this! So sorry about this. I’ve experienced this in Cairo too! Very degrading!,” Stella Nasirumbi (lawyer at the International Committee for the Red Cross) Twitter handle @StellaNasirumbi corroborated his experience in the Tweet thread.

When asked about his thoughts on what occurred and the handling of the issue by the restaurant management Mandela said, “It was utterly shocking and infuriating, simultaneously – once it registered that the ill-treatment was racially inclined. At some point you second-guess yourself on the reality of what is happening. In that instance, the relevance of validation of your thoughts by other people present cannot be overstated – and for this I will eternally be grateful to a Tunisian-French couple in the restaurant who corroborated my observations and stood by me as I confronted the management.”

Regrettably, Mandela’s unfortunate incident offers only but a glimpse into a much larger problem of racial prejudice and in some instance’s outright racism against African travellers. Al Jazeera highlighted the gravity of the issue in a moving article by Nigerian writer Shayera Dark titled: Do airlines and airports treat African passengers differently? where she deliberated the issue – drawing attention to the poor service African travellers receive in the air transport services sector ranging from hostility of flight attendants and ground staff to African destinations being designated older carriers. Furthermore, the Twitter hashtag #FlyingWhileAfrican reveals a litany of grievances against international airlines with insights into: ground staff questioning Africans in priority or business class queues as though they are out of place, flight attendants sneering at passengers or deliberately ignoring the call button and flights to African destinations taking off with dirty toilets.

Sierra Leonean business executive Mariama Nyelenkeh accurately conveys the frustrations faced by African travellers and the urgency for reforms in her statement: “It’s just horror stories up and down,” “I don’t want to hear ‘sorry to hear that’ [from the airlines]. Fix it.”
It’s high time that governments (mainly of the major international travel hubs), international organisations (particularly the International Organisation for Migration – IOM) and civil society appreciate the severity of racism against African people embedded in the air transport- travel services that the bulk of African travellers endure – most times in silence; and reign in on the air transport- travel industry to ensure that concrete steps are taken to address the institutional racism that seems to have found a comfortable haven in the above industries.

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