Airline Apologizes For Booting 9 Muslim Passengers From Flight

By Amy Gardner and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 3, 2009

A U.S. airline apologized yesterday to nine Muslim American passengers from the Washington area who were removed from a flight out of Reagan National Airport, but a Muslim civil rights group said it intends to press a discrimination complaint against the airline for its treatment of the passengers.

"It is incumbent on any airline to ensure that members of the traveling public are not singled out or mistreated based on their perceived race, religion or national origin. We believe this disturbing incident would never have occurred had the Muslim passengers removed from the plane not been perceived by other travelers and airline personnel as members of the Islamic faith," said the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation by the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group.

The New Year's Day incident aboard an AirTran flight to Orlando marked the latest case in which Muslim or South Asian travelers have alleged that they were illegally singled out for scrutiny. Contradictory accounts given by airline and federal aviation security authorities also highlight the difficulty of decision-making and affixing responsibility in tense situations involving a perceived threat.

Profiling by security agencies based on race, religion or ethnicity has concerned civil rights groups since at least 2001, when airport security escalated in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. CAIR, for example, publishes a brochure advising Muslim passengers about how to protect their rights during air travel, including how to request respectful searches and how to avoid confrontations with airport security personnel.

Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said her group tracked about 20 such reports in 2008, although the AirTran case was unusual because the airline initially refused to rebook the passengers.

"It seems in this case the airline has to take another look at what its policies are, how it handles a situation like this and what it considers suspicious behavior," Al-Qatami said.

In 2008, the Transportation Department said it handled 87 complaints alleging discrimination by airlines based on race, ethnicity, national origin or color, but only four were security related, spokesman Bill Adams said. However, Adams said security checkpoints staffed by the Transportation Security Administration are outside the department's jurisdiction.

TSA spokesman Christopher White said the agency's office of civil rights has received 32 complaints since Oct. 1.

AirTran initially defended its actions in removing the nine passengers after others reported their remarks about the safest place to sit on an airplane.

But as reports of the incident spread yesterday, the airline said in a statement that it had offered the group a refund for their replacement tickets and free return airfare. It also apologized to 95 other passengers whose flight was delayed about two hours.

"We regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did on New Year's Day, but we trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount and cannot be compromised," AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson said. "Nobody on Flight 175 reached their destination on time . . . and we regret it."

Brothers Kashif Irfan, 34, an anesthesiologist, and Atif Irfan, 29, a lawyer, both Alexandria residents, said they believed that their families and a friend were profiled at least in part because of their appearance. All but one of their group are native-born U.S. citizens, and the ninth is a legal permanent U.S. resident, they said; six are of Pakistani descent, two are of Turkish descent, and one is African American. All five adults and a teenager appeared traditionally Muslim, with the men wearing beards and the women in head scarves, they said. They were on their way to a religious retreat in Orlando.

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