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British Airways tried to manage a firestorm on Sunday over pilots who were accused of using racial slurs in emails and sending other offensive messages.

The airline suspended five pilots and launched an investigation over the emails that included the N-word and nostalgic messages about a  minstrel show that was on British TV through the 1970s, the Daily Mail reported.

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The pilots engulfed in the racial controversy worked part-time as trade union representatives for the British Airline Pilots Association by combining their flying duties with up to 45 hours a month with the union.

Union officials denied the accusations, but the newspaper said it reviewed six of the emails. The Daily Mail identified Captain Brendan O’Neal, who trains other British Airways pilots and served as a senior union official, as sending multiple emails with the N-word to a colleague. He has reportedly stepped down from his position as the union’s executive president.

Airlines in the United States have had their own racial controversies. For example, in 2016 a group of 18 Black pilots called for a federal investigation into a pattern of discrimination at United Airlines that included preventing African Americans from reaching managerial positions at the company.

“White pilots have disparagingly referred to African-American pilots as ‘consent decree hires’ and ‘equal opportunity hires’,” the coalition alleged, according to CBS News. The harassment included Black pilots receiving racist photos and messages, such as one that showed a Black man lynched by white supremacists with the words “How to move up in seniority at United Airlines.”

The British Airways pilot who sounded the alarm about the email was targeted in some of the racist messages. He reportedly admitted to sending offensive emails too—so that he could fit in with the culture.

Two pictures of blackface actors from “The Black And White Minstrel” show, which ran on British TV from 1958 to 1978, were emailed among pilots and union officials. The caption under the images read, “Ahh. The Black And White Minstrel Show. Wouldn’t be able to get away with that these days.”

An airline spokesman released this message to the newspaper: “We are appalled to learn of this behavor which does not reflect the values of our company.”


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