Queen Obioma and her two children had already completed the longest leg of their trip from Lagos to Ontario in March 2016 when she says United Airlines singled her out for her race.
They were seated separately as the second leg began early the morning of March 4, with the kids in economy class and Obioma in business class. They were heading from Houston to San Francisco, then up to Ontario, where her children went to school.
The man who was assigned the seat next to her was in her seat, according to a civil rights lawsuit Obioma filed in federal court in Houston on Friday. Both she and a flight attendant asked the man to get up, before Obioma decided to sit in 4J instead of 4K.
When she sat down, the man got up and went into the flight cabin, according to the lawsuit. What she didn't know at the time was that the man was complaining to the captain about Obioma's "pungent" smell, the suit says.
Smelly passengers actually can be forced off major airlines' flights. That language is baked into the contracts passengers agree to when they buy a ticket.
According to USA Today, American, Delta, Southwest and United all have similar provisions in their "contracts of carriage" that allow the airlines to deny boarding to passengers who: are barefoot or not properly clothed, have or cause a malodorous (foul-smelling) condition, appear to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs or are unable to sit in a single seat with the seat belt properly fastened.
But Obioma's lawsuit says her case goes one step further. She claims the airline "wrongfully singled out Ms. Obioma and her children because they were blacks, and punished them because a white man did not want them on the plane."
The passenger who complained was white, as was the United employee that first notified Obioma that staff needed to talk to her outside the plane. Another staffer there told her she was being removed from the flight because another passenger complained of her "pungent" odor.
The family was put on another flight to San Francisco that departed five hours later, according to the Houston Chronicle, resulting in missed appointments and total rearrangement of their travel itinerary, according to the suit.
United Airlines would not comment on the lawsuit, the Chronicle reported.
“We have not yet been served with this suit and due to the pending litigation involved in this matter, we’re unable to provide further comment,” a spokesman for the airline told the newspaper, in a emailed statement.
Obioma is seeking punitive damages and attorney's fees.