SEPTEMBER 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 9
Western Airlines' "Death Flights" Bring Boycott Threats from Church
Church and human rights groups are threatening Western Airlines with a national boycott if the company continues to transport Salvadoran refugees out of the U.S. on what critics have labelled "death flights."
When the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service decides to deport Salvadoran refugees, it routinely books flights with Western, which flies the Salvadorans to Mexico City, where they are transferred to another carrier for final destination in El Salvador. (See MM. March 1982).
"Salvadoran deportees may face persecution, torture and assassination upon their return to El Salvador," Church shareholders in Western Airlines claimed in a proxy statement presented at the company's annual meeting held in Los Angeles on July 23.
"Western transports 99.5% of the Salvadoran deportees from the U.S.," says the Reverend John Fife of the Tuscon Ecumenical Council, one of the groups filing the resolution with the company.
The church-sponsored resolution requested Western Airlines to "issue a report by September, 1982 to all shareholders" disclosing information about its traffic in deportees. including "the number of persons transported, estimated revenue and net profits from this operation" and the "criteria management would employ in considering continuation or termination of the contract."
The company opposed the shareholder resolution, saying in its proxy statement that the "concerns" of the filers "are more properly a subject for political disclosure and should be addressed to the United States Department of State, to the Immigration and Naturalization Service or to elected representatives."
At the annual meeting, a number of church representatives addressed the moral issues involved in Western's practice of transporting refugees. And a more hard-hitting appeal came from Peter Schey, director of the National Center for Immigrations' Rights.
Western could face a costly lawsuit from a family of one of the deportees who dies upon returning to El Salvador, Schey warned. "In its effort to make a few more dollars by transporting refugees out of the United States," says Schey, Western Airlines exposes itself to "obvious liability."
Schey also unveiled the threat of a national boycott.
"Religious organizations throughout the United States have indicated their willingness to mount a national boycott of Western Airlines unless the company ceases its involvement in what are often called `death flights.' " Schey estimated that "such a national boycott, supported by religious organizations, would obviously have a devastating impact on the financial recovery efforts to the company."
Western's chairman, Neil Bergt, responded that "Western Airlines is not a political entity, and we won't take political positions."
Western won the shareholder vote; the resolution received 7.5101o approval. But the church groups and the National Center for Immigrations' Rights are keeping the pressure on Western. They are trying to set up a meeting with chairman Bergt to impress upon him the importance of halting the flights. "I'm hopeful we can make some headway," says Reverend Fife, "but if not, I'm quite certain that a national boycott of Western Airlines would ensue."