DENVER — At just 10 years old, Moira has had to live through a moment many people of color can relate to.
Two weeks ago, Moira, who is multi-racial, and her mother Mary MacCarthy, who is white, traveled from San Jose to Denver after the sudden death of MacCarthy’s older brother.
"He's like a father figure to my daughter," MacCarthy said.
After buying the ticket last second, they were one of the last people to board their Southwest flight to Denver International Airport. Because of the airline’s open seat policy, she asked if they could be placed together. Flight attendants said no but encouraged her to ask passengers to switch seats, which happened easily.
"I chatted with the lovely people who had moved seats for us. My daughter listened to her audio book. I tried to sleep because I hadn't slept the night before, and there was nothing unusual in what happened on the flight," MacCarthy said.
It was a flight no different than any others this mother and daughter had taken before until the plane touched down.
"We landed at DIA, cross from the plane onto the jet bridge and we are immediately surrounded by two armed police. One of them starts speaking to me and one of them starts speaking to my daughter," MacCarthy said.
Immediately, MacCarthy thinks police are here to tell her of another family member who passed away, but shortly after, she realizes the reason is very different.
"The police officer says to me, you and your family were reported for suspicious behavior to the pilot, and that's why we're talking to you," MacCarthy said.
MacCarthy recorded part of the conversation on her phone, while her daughter was sobbing next to her.
A Denver Police Department report obtained by our partners at The Denver Post says officers were called to the gate because of a report of possible human trafficking.
The attendant’s grounds for the allegation were because MacCarthy demanded to sit with her daughter, they did not talk to each other during the flight and the flight attendant believed MacCarthy did not allow her daughter to talk to the crew.
"I want Southwest and all airlines to know that if you're training your crews on how to keep an eye out for human trafficking, it's as imperative that you train them equally in how to not racially profile. My daughter and I are both very friendly, forthcoming people," MacCarthy said.
DPD apologized on the jet bridge and said it was a misunderstanding.
Southwest Airlines provided the following statement:
“We were disheartened to learn of this mother’s account when traveling with her daughter. We are conducting a review of the situation internally, and we will be reaching out to the customer to address her concerns and offer our apologies for her experience traveling with us. Our Employees undergo robust training on Human Trafficking. Above all, Southwest Airlines prides itself on providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for the millions of Customers who travel with us each year. We do not make public our training procedures, but in our One Report where we report out on our commitment to the triple bottom line of Performance, People, and Planet, you can find the following: There is a growing focus on Human Trafficking at Southwest and in the airline industry. A robust Human Trafficking training is required for our Frontline Employees and recommended as voluntary curriculum for other Employees. In 2020, 18,000 Employees expanded their education and awareness around the growing global epidemic of Human Trafficking and Southwest's commitment to Safety regarding this issue through a video highlighting a recent Human Trafficking experience on a Southwest flight. We also hosted an online course that provides an overview on the crime of Human Trafficking. In 2020, 10,000 Employees learned how to identify Human Trafficking instances and take action, if necessary, through this course."
Already mourning the loss of a family member, MacCarthy says the incident only added to her daughter’s trauma.
"I have no doubt the next time we head to the airport that my daughter will be feeling a different kind of stress that she ever felt before," MacCarthy said. "That's tragic."