One of the most jarring experiences of Nazia Ali’s life began at the end of a dream 10-year anniversary trip with her husband, Faisal Ali.
After almost a week soaking in the ambient romance of Paris in July, the Alis boarded a return flight to their Cleveland home. The short walk to their second-row seats left time to store their bags, remove their shoes and murmur a few words of prayer asking for safe travel. That prayer ended with “inshallah,” or “God willing” in Arabic.
But after 45 minutes, Nazia Ali noticed, the usual orders about electronic devices and tray tables hadn’t come. A Delta Air Lines staffer approached.
“ ‘Mr. and Mrs. Ali, I need you to get off the plane with me,’ ” recalled Ali, a Pakistani American who wears a hijab over her hair. “He said: ‘Please grab all of your things. You are no longer taking this flight.’ ”
The passenger removal that captured national attention last week — in which law enforcement officers peeled David Dao from his seat and dragged him, bleeding, up the aisle — united Americans in righteous indignation. But cases in which airlines force passengers to surrender their seats are regulated and in a long-term pattern of decline. In 2016, 40,629 people were forced off planes because of a need for seats, down slightly from 43,704 the year before and 65,079 in 2010.
What appears to be a growing phenomenon — but less closely monitored by regulators — is the kind of passenger removal the Alis say they encountered, one driven by racial, ethnic or religious profiling.
Although the Transportation Department tracks removals caused by full flights, the agency doesn’t tally the number of bumped people who go on to file discrimination complaints. But advocacy groups say the number of complaints filed by people removed after flight crews or passengers raised security concerns related to innocuous conversations in a foreign language or other matters tied to skin color or religion spiked in 2016.
Passengers filed 94 civil rights complaints for all incidents against U.S. airlines and foreign carriers flying into the country in 2016, according to federal data. That’s up almost 45 percent from 2015.
Muslim Advocates, a civil rights group whose work includes assisting passengers who say they’ve been profiled, identified more than 60 such incidents by August 2016. The group learned about some of these removals when people called directly seeking help. Some involved situations for which no civil rights complaint has been filed with the Transportation Department.
The Alis’ story was among several removals that became public last year: the olive-skinned economics professor reported by a passenger for working on a mathematical equation; the man with a generous beard ejected after a passenger complained that he appeared Arabic and scary; the seven black passengers who weren’t traveling together removed after two had a dispute with a flight attendant; the Muslim woman who joined another passenger’s complaint about a five-hour tarmac wait; the black minister and civil rights activist escorted off a plane after nearby passengers lobbed racially themed insults his way. In each case, the airlines insisted that security concerns alone motivated events.
The uptick in these cases could represent a new and intense round in the tug of war between national security and civil rights. But they have garnered little outrage, often freighted with nebulous proof of prejudice or indifference to it. Unlike Dao’s situation, they’re not the kind of customer service disasters that could ensnare any passenger and end in dramatic confrontations on video.
The “argument really boils down to, ‘My fears are more important than your rights,’ ” said Corey Saylor, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations department that monitors and combats Islamophobia. “It’s better to not have a Constitution and still be alive — that’s how I would sum this logic up.”
Airlines for America, an industry trade group, points out that there was one civil rights complaint filed against U.S.-based airlines per 10.3 million passengers in 2016.
The country’s air carriers “are committed to offering the highest levels of customer service and our members do not tolerate discrimination in any form,” the organization said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post.
Many civil rights groups argue that bias-driven plane removals are underreported, because passengers fear that complaints will lead to future trouble on flights, don’t know how to file a case or are overwhelmed by the paperwork. By comparison, news reports of Dao’s dragging prompted a federal transit probe the same week.
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, wants airline passengers to make no mistake: What’s happening here matters.
“When airlines remove passengers based on how they look or the language that they speak,” Shamsi said, “they contribute to a climate that has grown recently and that most certainly does not add to security. They take our entire country to a place where people who believe in equality should not want to be.”
Nazia Ali says profiling has become a part of flying for her. She and her husband privately joke about how she’s subjected to additional Transportation Security Administration screening every time. But what happened last year was different.
Nothing they said to the crew or law enforcement waiting on the jet bridge mattered. A decision had already been made.
Delta first told reporters that a flight attendant had grown uncomfortable with the Alis because Faisal Ali was sweating, Nazia Ali was wearing a headscarf and at least one of them had used the word “Allah.” Then, the airline issued a statement affirming Delta’s commitment to equality, promising to refund the Alis’ money (they were rebooked on a direct flight to Cleveland the next day) and investigate the incident with care. Later, the airline emailed the Alis their findings: No discrimination occurred.
The couple were so troubled that last year, they drove to Canada and Florida to avoid flying. They also contacted CAIR and filed a civil rights complaint.
“We would not accept this in any other industry,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR Chicago, “but because of the magic word — ‘security’ — that they can flash, that shuts a lot of people up.”
That’s the word United Airlines used to explain why it removed Eaman and Mohamed Shebley and their three children from a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport en route to a spring break trip to Washington in March 2016. The Lebanese American couple say United and its partner operator SkyWest gave them conflicting information about using a booster seat for their 2½-year-old daughter. After Mohamed Shebley spoke to crew members on the plane, one began asking questions Shebley found alarming.
“They started asking all sorts of odd things,” he recalled. “ ‘Where did you buy your tickets?’ ”
Eaman Shebley put the booster away. Over the next hour, flight attendants and then the captain told the family to leave the plane. The couple asked repeatedly for an explanation. Some in first class began to stand and point. A United crew member said the next step was to call police.
Nearby strangers tried to convince the crew that the Shebleys hadn’t been a problem. But another passenger, a white man, yelled, “Get off the plane, you all are going to jail,” Eaman Shebley said.
One of the couple’s children broke into tears. The Shebleys walked off the plane.
“Understand that had it not been for that decision,” said Rehab, “this could have been another dragging.”
On the jet bridge, the pilot told the Shebleys that they were noncompliant, a disruptive kind of security risk. Not long after, United had the Shebleys booked on a different flight to Washington.
After the trip, the couple contacted CAIR Chicago and filed a civil rights complaint and a lawsuit.
In an emailed response to The Post, United said, “Both SkyWest and United hold our employees to the highest standards of professionalism and have zero tolerance for discrimination.” In a separate statement, SkyWest added that “we ensure that all employees participate in training that supports our zero tolerance for discrimination.”
In the months since that flight, the Shebleys’ son has been anxious, a 9-year-old who needs every logistical detail before they travel. At school, some kids tease him for getting kicked off a plane.
Fair-skinned and blue-eyed, Eaman Shebley wonders whether her family would have been treated differently if she hadn’t worn a hijab.
That tangle of concerns is magnified across millions of Muslim Americans, Rehab said.
“These incidents do not happen in a vacuum,” said Brenda F. Abdelall, a staff member with Muslim Advocates. “They are byproducts of the world around us.”
Planes are like social microcosms for whatever dynamics exist in the country, said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing half the U.S. flight attendant workforce. These days, Americans are bringing their politics and politicized anxieties into increasingly tight spaces.
“I don’t know that we have ever seen tensions like we see today,” said Nelson, “that are really more related to the political environment than an actual security situation or risk.”
In November, at the request of civil rights groups and after input from Nelson’s union, the Transportation Department began making public more detailed data about civil rights complaints. Days before President Barack Obama left office, department officials updated the Passenger Bill of Rights, reinforcing that removing a passenger for sporting a beard, reading another language or “appearing” Muslim is illegal. The agency also issued the first new must-follow guidance to airlines regarding discrimination since November 2001.
Some say a need for stronger regulations remains. In letters to federal transit officials last year, three organizations — CAIR, Muslim Advocates and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — asked the Transportation Department to mandate anti-bias training for flight crews and expand the events that prompt an official investigation.
Nelson agrees that better training is key.
Airlines have always made cultural awareness part of flight crew training, she said. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a spike in removals and transit agency action taken against certain airlines, almost all added training on implicit biases, judgment and distorted assessments of risk. Some provide more than others.
But flight attendants are always trained to keep potential problems on the ground.
“Ideally, that [training] would equip a flight attendant to remove actual security risks,” Nelson said, “and offer a passenger who reports someone for simply speaking Arabic the option of taking another flight.”