The pilot of an America West flight ordered an emergency runway evacuation in Ohio on Friday because of what the crew thought was suspicious behavior by two Middle Eastern passengers.
The two graduate students from Saudi Arabia, who were handcuffed, questioned and released, were innocent victims of "racial and religious profiling," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), at a press briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday. He called for an official investigation and urged Muslims to boycott America West until it undertakes reforms.
The group said the incident may have been a result of tensions surrounding the investigation of the recent crash of EgyptAir Flight 990.
The pilot of America West Flight 90, bound here from Phoenix with a stop in Columbus, requested emergency procedures because the two men were asking suspicious questions and one had jiggled the cockpit door, according to officials of Port Columbus International Airport, who got the pilot's call about 15 minutes before the landing. About 90 passengers were taken off at the end of a runway and loaded onto buses to the terminal.
Muhammad Al-Qudhaieen, 34, and Hamdan Alshalawi, 37, both graduate students at Arizona universities, said at yesterday's news conference that they were humiliated based solely on their complexion and language, having engaged in nothing other than normal behavior: asking questions of the flight attendant, speaking in Arabic and making hand gestures to each other. They were headed for a meeting hosted by the university that sponsors their U.S. studies and, according to a CAIR lawyer, a dinner at the Saudi Embassy here.
Al-Qudhaieen said he "never touched" the cockpit door, but was trying to use a lavatory at the front of the cabin. He had asked a flight attendant about the plane's itinerary because he was concerned about being late, he said; he asked whether the plane would be full because he was hoping Alshalawi might move from the rear cabin to an empty seat next to him. He also asked whether there was any pork or ham on the menu--items his religion prohibits--and was assured that there was only "turkey ham."
"I believe what has happened is absolutely outrageous," said Al-Qudhaieen.
The two said they were detained for almost eight hours, including two hours handcuffed in a police car and three or four hours in a detention room at the airport. After the initial arrest by local police, they said, the FBI was summoned to question them.
An FBI spokesman in Ohio told the Associated Press that the agency is satisfied no laws were broken.
Ultimately, America West representatives apologized to them, the two men said.