American Samoa Teacher of the Year Claims She Faced Discrimination at Alabama Airport

Sabrina Suluai-Mahuka, the 2021 American Samoa Teacher of the Year, who recently attended the Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, with teachers of the year from other U.S. states, had her trip turn sour as she tried to fly home.

While trying to board a flight on Monday, Suluai-Mahuka said she and another Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) teacher were discriminated against when American Airlines representatives treated them indifferently but were reportedly much more accommodating to a white male teacher of the year.

Following her experience, Suluai-Mahuka, who identifies as Chinese and Samoan Filipino, shared her story in a series of messages posted on Instagram. The white teacher, Anthony Coy-Gonzalez of Ohio, corroborated her story with his own post on Facebook on Tuesday.

Aerial view of an airplane
A teacher of the year recipient said she faced racial discrimination while at an Alabama airport. This image shows a stock photo of an airplane at an airport. Getty Images

Suluai-Mahuka, a high school English teacher, wrote she departed Huntsville's U.S. Space & Rocket Center at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on a "joyous high." She and all state teachers of the year had been invited to the space camp there. Later, though, that high was "abruptly replaced with one of panic, disbelief and hurt after my interaction with American Airlines at the Huntsville Airport."

Her flight had been canceled, but the way the airline treated her and her friend "was VASTLY different" than how they treated Coy-Conzalez, she wrote on the social media platform. Suluai-Mahuka said she was told another flight wasn't available until the next day, and since the cancellation was weather-related, the airline would not help her find accommodations for the night.

"[Her] Asian friend saw a different rep but was told the same story," Suluai-Mahuka added in the post.

She soon ran into Coy-Gonzalez, who she said told her he was given "an entirely different response by the same service reps." His flight was also canceled, without another one until the following day, but he was given full accommodations without even asking.

"This included a hotel room, a meal voucher and taxi voucher," she said, adding the American Airlines representatives also "assisted him with getting a hotel since the airport hotel was full."

She wrote that such treatment—which she said included being handled by a curt representative who avoided eye contact—would have been excusable if that was the company's policy regarding weather cancellations. However, the teacher was upset by the "blatant disregard for me as a person."

Coy-Gonzalez shared Suluai-Mahuka's Instagram posts on his Facebook page. He also included his own message, which said: "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. 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."

See posts, photos and more on Facebook.

"American Airlines, tell me how you made that decision to treat us differently?" Suluai-Mahuka wrote on Instagram. "Was it because I'm female? Or was it my brown Polynesian skin? Perhaps it was my almond-shaped eyes that speak of my Chinese heritage? Or maybe it was the Filipino and Samoan tattoos that adorn my body?"

Suluai-Mahuka spoke with WIAT, a CBS-affiliated television station in Birmingham, Alabama, in a story that aired on Wednesday. "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," Suluai-Mahuka added. "I can only imagine what someone else would feel if they didn't have that support. I implore American Airlines: fix your system."

American Airlines released a statement on the issue to WIAT. "American Airlines strives to ensure all customers feel cared for throughout their journey," it 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."

The website AL.com also contacted American Airlines about the matter. Andrew Trull, a spokesman for the company, said the airline has offered Suluai-Mahuka a reimbursement for her hotel-related expenses and has reached out to apologize. He also said American Airlines is investigating the incident.

"American Airlines strives to ensure all customers feel cared for throughout their journey," Trull said. "We're deeply concerned by the allegations shared and are working to investigate the matter further."

Newsweek contacted the Huntsville International Airport for further comment but did not hear back in time for publication.