An Orthodox Jewish couple has sued JetBlue airlines in Brooklyn federal court alleging they were removed from a JetBlue flight for being Jewish. The couple is seeking $40 million in damages.
Michael Nektalov and his wife, Miryem Yushaneyev, were waiting to take off from Aruba to JFK Airport with their five children on February 4, 2021, when the plane suddenly returned to the gate. According to the complaint, the couple looked visibly Jewish: Michael had a long beard and was wearing a yarmulka, his wife was wearing a head-covering, and their children were conversing with them in Hebrew. When Yushaneyev asked a flight attendant what was going on, she was told, “Your mask slipped off your nose.” (At that time, masks were required on planes.) The flight attendant then made a note of Yushaneyev’s seat number. The lawsuit says that at no point did any member of the family take off their masks.
At the gate, a JetBlue employee told Nektalov that they had been removed from the flight because his wife was not wearing a mask. Two other people, a Jewish father and daughter who were speaking Russian, were also told to get off the plane. It is Nektalov’s belief that they were all lumped together as “disruptive Jews” without any basis. The JetBlue employee then stated that both families would have to get off the plane or all passengers would have to get off the plane. Two flight attendants stood authoritatively with their arms folded, making it clear that they meant business.
The young Russian Jewish woman said that this was all being done because they were Jewish. A young Jewish man with a yarmulka interceded on the families’ behalf but was escorted away. Angry, humiliated, and embarrassed, the families proceeded to exit the plane. One passenger said she was “pro Jewish” and that the families were being treated unfairly; other passengers seemed to agree.
In the complaint, Nektalov states that when he and his family were made to deplane, he “felt as though we were in Nazi Germany, and that we were being isolated, vilified, and herded for disposal.” As a result of the above, he and his family were forced to remain in Aruba for an additional amount of time at their own cost and expense. This was on top of the emotional and psychological distress they suffered. Yushaneyev states in the complaint that she is “deeply upset” by the antisemitic actions of JetBlue’s employees; the couple feels that they were discriminated against and targeted for being Jewish.
Under Section 44902(b) of the Airline Deregulation Act, “Subject to regulations of the Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, an air carrier, intrastate air carrier, or foreign air carrier may refuse to transport a passenger or property the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety.” The couple argues that this rule should not apply as their removal from the JetBlue flight was due to their Orthodox Jewish status. They did not pose a safety threat to anyone on the plane.
The Nektalovs suffered further humiliation when, on March 14, 2021, JetBlue’s vice president of corporate security sent the following identical letter to Michael and his wife, reiterating the false narrative of the previous month:
This correspondence will serve as formal notice that effective on March 15, 2021, you are no longer welcome as a customer aboard JetBlue. A formal record exists in our database to ensure the proper enforcement of this decision.
This action is a direct result of an incident that took place on February 4, 2021, onboard Flight 1058 scheduled to travel from Aruba Queen Beatrix International Airport to John F. Kennedy International Airport. You ignored multiple instructions from the initial crewmembers to wear your face mask and created a disturbance onboard. Your non-compliance and unruly behavior caused the aircraft to return to the gate. When you refused to exit the plane, a full deplaning became necessary for your removal.
JetBlue incurred a lengthy delay as a result.
JetBlue maintains a zero-tolerance policy with respect to this type of unacceptable personal conduct as it represents a serious security and safety risks to our operations. This important policy is in place to ensure the safety and security of our Customers and Crewmembers.
Netkalov and Yushaneyev are now banned for life from flying with JetBlue. They claim they were treated differently because of their religion and that JetBlue breached their travel contract by kicking them off the flight. The couple further claims they face fear of airports and flying as a result of JetBlue’s actions. The plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages as well as attorney’s fees under the Civil Rights Act. Section 2000(d) of that statute governs airlines such as JetBlue which receive federal funds and assistance. The couple also seeks damages for the loss of business they suffered and for the cost of their alternate travel arrangements.
The Nektalovs also allege negligent infliction of emotional distress due to conduct that was “beyond the bounds of decency and decorum.” JetBlue is alleged to have intentionally and/or recklessly mistreated plaintiffs, causing them to “suffer depression, anxiety, and humiliation.”
Though at this writing, JetBlue had not yet submitted its answer, in response to a request for comment from the New York Post, JetBlue spokesperson Derek Dombrowski stated: “We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind at JetBlue. We take any claims such as these seriously and will work to fully understand the facts of what happened in this event.”
The couple are represented by attorney Adam C. Glassman, who brought the same complaint on January 28, 2022. That case was dismissed without prejudice on July 7 of that year, for failure to prosecute. This author has not received a response to his request for comment from Michael Nektalov or his attorney as of the time of this writing.