At first, Radwan thought the flight attendant must be talking to someone else, he said. Then he realized that he had just been singled out among other passengers, apparently because of his ethnicity. After raising the issue with the flight attendant and other airline employees, Radwan was removed from the plane at the captain’s orders.
Now a Muslim civil rights organization is calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate the incident as a possible act of bias. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the organization has written to the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division, alleging that the flight crew ordered Radwan off from Flight 1821 solely because he is Muslim and not because of anything he was doing.
“I think it was a shattering moment for me because I’ve lived in this country for 20 years, and I’m a proud and an honored American,” Radwan, a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated from Egypt, said in an interview Thursday. “It was a moment where I felt that a lot of the very values I came to this country for were stripped from me by not being treated equally just like everybody else on the plane.”
A call to American Airlines seeking comment late Wednesday was not immediately returned.
CAIR said Radwan’s experience fits a troubling pattern in which air travelers are singled out and sometimes removed from flights only because of their religion or ethnicity — a phenomenon known as “flying while Muslim.”
“Many of the cases we’ve seen they fail to provide an objectively reasonable cause or explanation, and they do ultimately seem that they’re ultimately based on unsubstantiated fear or speculation of some sort, ” said Maha Sayed, a CAIR attorney who is handling the case. She said the federal government needs to do more to draft specific guidelines on acceptable criteria for removing people from flights that are based on their actions and not stereotypes.
“There’s obviously a legitimate need for safety and order within every cabin, and it’s obviously the flight and crew members’ responsibility to ensure safety for all the passengers,” Sayed said. “But our view is, there’s a current lack of clarity on procedures and standards that are used in determining whether someone should be justifiably removed from a flight.”
The incident occurred just days after the Dec. 2 terrorist attack by Islamic radicals in San Bernardino, Ca. Radwan said he had boarded the 4 p.m. layover flight, put his belongings on his seat and was facing the front of the plane when he heard his name.
“Mohamed Ahmed, Seat 25-A: I will be watching you,” the flight attendant was reported as saying.
The flight attendant didn’t use the intercom, but she said it loud enough to be heard across several rows in the rear of the airplane, Radwan said. She also garbled his name a bit, confusing part of his first name with his surname.
“At first I really didn’t make sense of the whole scenario,” Radwan said. “At first I thought she was reaching out to someone else.”
Then the flight attendant repeated her warning.
“That’s when I realized she was communicating and making a statement to me,” Radwan said. “I was in shock for a moment.”
Radwan, 40, who is a senior manager at a manufacturing company in an Atlanta-based company and lives Lake City, Fla., said he had been flying for years without a problem. He wanted the flight attendant to know that what she had done was wrong.
“I said, Excuse me, ma’am. Did you just say, ‘Mohamed Ahmed, seat 25A — I’ll be watching you’?” Radwan recalled. “She said, ‘Yes. I’m going to be watching everybody.’ I said, ‘Yes, but that’s not what I heard . . . What you just said is offensive and not acceptable.’ ”
Radwan said he didn’t get her name. He described her as an African American, and he said she became nervous and defensive when he spoke to her.
“She kept saying, ‘You know I’ll be watching everybody. You don’t have to be too sensitive,’” Radwan recalled. “I said, ‘Ma’am I’m as American as everybody else here on this plane. What you just did was wrong and discriminatory.’ ”
Two other American Airlines employees approached him to find out what happened, and Radwan said he calmly told his version of events. After the airline employees conferred with the cockpit crew, Radwan was removed from the flight.
The airline offered Radwan another flight, he said, but he was so upset that he booked with another carrier. When he arrived at his hotel, he wrote down what had happened and posted a complaint on American Airlines’ Facebook page.
Eventually, he filed a formal complaint with the airline, but Radwan said he was not satisfied with its response. No decision has been made on whether he will take legal action, but Radwan said he felt further action was necessary to make sure that it doesn’t happen to others.
“I understand the sense of fear that’s out there [with] everybody, including myself, because of the threats we face, here and abroad,” Radwan said. “But what happened on that flight was definitely alarming to the entire country. If those kinds of discriminatory statements become the norm on airlines, then we are in big danger . . . I think this country is much stronger than that.”
—This post has been updated with new material and to correct the first name of CAIR’s attorney.