The Obama administration has issued new anti-discrimination guidelines for flight crews to consider before determining that a airline passenger poses a safety threat.

The Department of Transportation, addressing an increase in complaints by Muslims who say they were unfairly removed from their flights, says the guidelines are intended to help airline employees understand their legal duty to avoid discriminating against people based on race, religion, national origin, gender or ethnicity.

The guidelines urge flight crews to investigate a situation thoroughly and focus on facts and behaviors – not appearances — before denying boarding or removing a passenger. They also walk employees through several scenarios that appear to be modeled on recent cases in the news.

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For example, one scenario describes how the flight crew should handle the situation when a passenger becomes alarmed about two others who are whispering in a foreign language before takeoff, one of whom appears to be holding a Koran.

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Not enough, obviously, to ask them to step off the plane, the guidelines say.

Reaction was mixed among some civil rights attorneys who have been  fighting back against instances of “flying while Muslim.”

“[I]t’s of course promising that DOT has responded to our recent efforts to develop more clear and concrete measures in passenger removal situations,” said Maha Sayed, a staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington. “I think the guidelines do a great job in emphasizing the importance of making comprehensive and fact-based assessments of each situation. And they also consistently caution against the inclination to make a decision based solely on a passenger’s ethnic or religious identity.”

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But Sana Hassan, a staff attorney with CAIR’s Cincinnati office, said the federal government should do more.

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“It still puts too much discretion with the flight crew. That’s the essential problem,” Hassan said.

The guidelines come as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx clears out his desk for the next administration. Under Foxx, the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings has not levied public sanctions or financial penalties against the airlines for discrimination based on religion, national origin, race or other categories besides disability. (Earlier this month, the office entered a consent order against American Airlines for improperly failing to accommodate a passenger’s service animal; the enforcement action, filed here, orders the airline to cease and desist from such conduct in the future.) The last such order for discrimination was filed in 2012.

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At the same time, the number of discrimination complaints against airlines has risen.  The Transportation Department has also taken steps to draw more attention to the issue in its regular reports on travelers’ complaints.

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The new guidelines — which were issued late Friday — were developed by the Office of the General Counsel, Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, and packaged under the acronym B.E.  F.A.I.R. They urge crews to conduct “an objective and comprehensive inquiry” when confronted with a situation of passengers who arouse concerns.

“Before taking action, you should consider whether these passengers’ behavior would concern you but for their appearance,” the guidelines say. “[W]ould you be concerned if they did not appear to be of Arab descent, speak in a foreign language, or hold a book written in Arabic that appears to be the Quran?”

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Airline staff are also urged to ask questions and observe what’s going on.

“You should also consider conferring with your colleagues and be sure to relay your factual observations rather than just feelings, beliefs or opinions,” the guidelines say. “It is important to ensure that your inquiry is not based on cultural stereotypes and is focused on first-hand observable behaviors that support a reasonable and rational evaluation of the facts leading to the security concerns.”

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Airlines for America, an organization that advocates for the industry, welcomed the guidance while reiterating the airlines’ commitment to fairness.

“[W]e commend the Department of Transportation for working collaboratively with airlines, civil rights groups and other stakeholders to help ensure a pleasant flight experience for all of our passengers,” A4A spokeswoman Kathy Grannis Allen said in an email. “Our members do not tolerate discrimination in any form and airline employees rely on their extensive customer service training to safely carry 2.2. million passengers each day in an environment where security remains one of our  highest priorities. While these incidents are rare, we believe the updated guidance will assist airlines, employees and our customers in reaching a respectful, fair and quick resolution.”

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As wise as it is to remind flight crews to focus on objective criteria, the CAIR attorneys said, the next step is for DOT to show that they take violations seriously.

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“It’s obviously a good-faith gesture,” Sayed said. “I’m hopeful they are taking these complaints seriously and they will be investigating them in the future with more force. . .To my knowledge, we haven’t seen recent penalties issued against airlines with respect to discrimination.”

The question is — what happens when flight crews still remove someone who didn’t really pose a threat? And what if their reasoning was just as discriminatory, but not as obvious? Is this the best the federal government can do?

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“This is all basically commonsense. It’s basically something they already had,” Hassan said. “They just polished it a little bit. There’s more work to be done.”

I’m with Sana. It’s not enough. Much of the guide is recycling common sense, some of it’s vague, some it’s cheerleading for the airlines, and some almost seems condescending. What’s next? Coloring books?

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The Transportation Department needs to show, through more transparent and vigorous enforcement procedures, that it takes these complaints seriously and will not tolerate instances in which people are removed from a flight because they look different.

Read more of Tripping:

–This posting has been updated to correct Sana Hassan’s comments.

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