HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WIAT) — When the American Samoan Teacher of the Year came to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, alongside her decorated colleagues, she was already concerned about the state’s reputation of discrimination. At Space Camp, though, inclusion was the norm. The concern slipped from her mind. When she tried to depart from Huntsville International Airport on Monday, however, she said she was treated by American Airlines not based on the content of her character, but on the color of her skin.
Sabrina Suluai-Mahuka had been invited, along with all State Teachers of the Year, to attend Space Camp on the site of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center museum at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Her experience at the camp was excellent, she said in an interview with CBS 42.
“I loved everything about Space Camp,” she said. “The staff there were very professional. They were very inclusive. I would’ve loved more representation among the speakers there, but other than that we were always well taken care of.”
At the Huntsville International Airport, her experience changed.
Suluai-Mahuka said that she was denied overnight accommodations by American Airlines, which she had requested when her flight was canceled due to a weather event.
“If that had been the whole story, if that would have been their policy for everyone, I would have panicked, but we would have figured it out,” she said. “That would’ve been fine.”
That wasn’t the whole story, though.
A few minutes after she and another Teacher of the Year, a fellow Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), had departed the airport, they contacted a third colleague, Ohio’s State Teacher of the Year, Anthony Coy-Gonzalez, a white male, who was on his way to attempt to board what was then a canceled flight. They informed him that he would be denied accommodations and that they should all work together to figure out their next moves.
What happened next, Suluai-Mahuka said, made American Airlines’ earlier actions clearly discriminatory.
Coy-Gonzalez was not only provided overnight accommodations, he was given a food voucher and was offered a taxi. When he had difficulty finding a hotel, the airline provided more assistance. He then had trouble finding a taxi. American Airlines arranged to reimburse him for an Uber.
“My friends and fellow teachers of the year, both AAPI, were denied the privilege I was offered 20 minutes later with the same representatives when our flight was canceled,” Coy-Gonzalez said in a social media post. “They were given nothing but dismissal when they requested help. I walked in and was offered a hotel, taxi, and meal without asking. Same flight. Same time. Same airline. American Airlines, this is not okay.”
Suluai-Mahuka told CBS 42 that she was discriminated against by American Airlines.
“My friend is Korean, and I am Samoan-Filipino, I am dark-skinned, I have tattoos over my body, and Anthony is the definition of a white American male,” she said. “We flew on the same airline. Why did the policy suddenly change when it came to a white male?”
Other teachers have already spoken out about the incident.
CBS 42 spoke to David Dai, Alabama’s Alternate Teacher of the Year and a Vietnamese-American, about the incident. He attended the Space Camp event as well.
“For me, having had the opportunity to get to know Sabrina, and hearing this story, you realize that it’s one thing to have the title of State Teacher of the Year, but then there’s the reality that regardless of those titles, none of us is really immune from facing discrimination and prejudice,” Dai said.
“I think the incident is a microcosm of what some of us growing up in Alabama are kind of used to,” he said. “Just being brushed off, being pushed aside. It’s something I would like to say that a lot of Alabama would not engage in, but I can’t say that confidently. From personal experiences, I wasn’t surprised to hear that this had happened, but I am saddened and heartbroken.”
American Airlines released a statement on the issue to CBS 42 Wednesday evening.
“American Airlines strives to ensure all customers feel cared for throughout their journey,” their statement said. “We’re deeply concerned by the allegations shared and are working to investigate the matter further. Our team has reached out to Ms. Suluai-Mahuka to apologize for her experience and provide reimbursement for her hotel-related expenses.”
For her part, though, Suluai-Mahuka said that she’s not concerned about the money involved, but about bigger changes.
“I want to see American Airlines fix this,” she said. “The money can be pushed aside; it can be replaced. They need to fix their system, because if I hadn’t known what happened with Anthony, I wouldn’t have known I was mistreated. I feel supported by my community and by other State Teachers of the Year. I can only imagine what someone else would feel if they didn’t have that support. I implore American Airlines: fix your system.”
CBS 42 has also reached out to Huntsville International Airport for comment. They have not yet responded.
This article was updated to add a statement from American Airlines which was sent to CBS 42 after this piece’s publication.