How airlines help change immigration policies with taking stand

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of our Airline Marketing Monthly

One of the biggest news stories of the past few months, on both sides of the Atlantic in the USA and UK, was the forced removal of migrants.

In the UK there was a political scandal when it was revealed that elderly members of the “Windrush generation” (people who migrated from former British colonies in the Caribbean in the 1950s), were being deported for not meeting the onerous paperwork requirements introduced by the Home Office as part of its “hostile environment” policy to try and lower net migration.

Meanwhile in the USA, a similar hostile environment resulted in US immigration authorities separating migrants crossing the US / Mexican border with their children, who are in some cases infants. The reason for this was that unauthorised border crossings were now being enforced as a criminal offence, resulting in adults ending up in court and jail before being deported again.

Airlines very soon found themselves embroiled in the controversy.

Forced deportations often happen on commercial airlines. The new US immigration policy, however, resulted in something new – airlines were being used for flights to take kids separated from their parents to holding centres.

The outcry prompted airlines to act, with six, representing the bulk of the US airline industry, refusing to carry separated immigrant children – American Airlines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines.

American Airlines was first, following reports that flight attendants had posted on social media about Latino kids being escorted on flights by Federal Agents and not their parents. Frontier Airlines followed with a tweet saying that they would “not knowingly allow our flights to be used to transport migrant children away from their families.”

There then quickly followed similar statements by United, Alaska and Southwest. The US Department of Homeland Security accused the airlines of “buckling” to the mainstream media. However, hours after the Department released that statement, President Trump partially reversed the policy through an Executive Order.

As a result, the airlines in question arguably helped shape Government policy, a theme taken up by SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam in an episode of the SimpliLive show (watch below).

Noting that many of the airlines justified their decision on being family friendly brands, Shashank Nigam said that “this was an opportunity for the airlines to reinforce their brands with their core message.” “Airlines have the power to influence policy” and so “airlines should take a stand when something is in conflict with their values.”

How Mexico's Volaris and three US airlines helped change US immigration policy #SimpliLive

Mexico's Volaris has committed to re-uniting separated immigrant kids with their parents for free. Three US airlines have, on the other hand, refused to transport kids separated from their parents. This is BOLD! These airlines have played their part in forcing the US President to re-think its policy. Airlines have power. They need to exercise it. #SimpliLiveShow notes: 1. American Airlines Doesn't Want to Fly Migrant Children Separated From Their Families Volaris uniting families

Posted by SimpliFlying on Tuesday, June 26, 2018


According to Quartz, there are still “many charter airlines that don’t operate scheduled flights and can still be used by the US government to repatriate asylum seekers who have been denied refugee status. Among them: Xtra Airways, based in Coral Gables, Florida.”

Volaris offers to fly separated kids home for free

Almost all the children separated from their parents come from Mexico or other Central American countries. This resulted in Mexican airline Volaris announcing that it would offer to reunite families – for free. Volaris, which serves 65 destinations across Mexico, the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, stated that “families belong together and our commitment is to help them stay together to build a better future.”

Virgin Atlantic stops cooperating with UK Home Office

Meanwhile in the UK, airline Virgin Atlantic announced that it would no longer cooperate with Britain’s Home Office in forcibly removing migrants. Coming after the political scandal which saw people who had been living in the UK in some cases since the 1950s, being deported to Caribbean countries, the airline said that it was “in the best interest of our customers and people”.

However, according to media reports, Virgin Atlantic is at time of writing still working with the Home Office on deportations, with the new policy only taking effect on August 1st. High profile deportations in the UK have in the past resulted in unpleasant scenes at airports and on-board for airlines.

For example, in 2014, 17,500 people protested at the UK Government’s decision to deport High School student Yashika Bageerathi to Mauritius, which included multiple callouts to Air Mauritius not to take part in the deportation and protests at Heathrow itself.

Meanwhile in 2010, British Airways passengers on board a flight to Luanda (Angola) were “haunted by the last cries of a dying man” – Jimmy Mubenga, who was unlawfully killed by guards restraining him, according to a 2013 inquest.

Key takeaway

As Shashank Nigam said in his broadcast, this was an opportunity for airlines to step up to the plate and prove that their commitment to ‘family values’ is more than just words. It also shows how the aviation industry can have a major influence on one of the major issues of the day.

As cases such as the Jimmy Mubenga incident we mention above, deportations can also result in public relations disasters for airlines with passengers witnessing distressing incidents – despite the airline itself not being at fault.

Of course, taking a stand isn’t without risk. When Delta announced that it would cut discounts for National Rifle Association (NRA) members, its home state of Georgia announced a cut of $40 million in tax breaks in retaliation.

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