Two Muslim men said they were unfairly targeted by Alaska Airlines for texting in Arabic, which resulted in their removal from their flight in February 2020.
Abobakkr and Mohamed, two American citizens of Sudanese descent who are only being identified by their first names to protect their privacy, spoke at a virtual press conference and said their civil rights were violated when they were removed from a domestic flight.
The latest incident is yet another example of what many Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers have described as “flying while Muslim,” a disturbing pattern of discriminatory experiences faced by passengers at airports.
Since 9/11, Muslim and Arab travelers said they’ve been pulled aside for secondary screening each time they travel, asked personal questions about their religious and political views, or even kicked off a plane, all due to unwarranted ethnic and religious bias.
Flying while Muslim’ has now become a globally recognized phenomenon of suspicion and humiliation, and this phenomenon must come to a stop,” said Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-WA.)
CAIR, the national civil rights organization, said that February’s incident isn’t the first of its kind and that the group has received numerous similar complaints from Muslim travelers over the years.
The CAIR-WA team said they hope to settle the matter with Alaska Airlines but are prepared to file a lawsuit if need be.
In 2009, Transportation Security Administration officials and JetBlue paid $240,000 to settle charges that they illegally discriminated against a U.S. resident based on his ethnicity after two TSA agents demanded the passenger remove his shirt, which had Arabic writing on it.
In 2012, Atlantic Southeast Airlines received a $25,000 civil penalty for unlawfully removing two imams from a flight and not allowing the religious leaders to reboard the aircraft after law enforcement officials determined they didn’t pose any threat.
In 2015, four Muslims, two of whom were of Middle Eastern descent, were removed from their Baltimore flight after a passenger complained about “suspicious activity” ― which amounted to a Muslim passenger simply reading a news report on his phone.
In 2016, a traveler also on Alaska Airlines, said he couldn’t board his flight after another passenger complained about his beard and said he looked “Arabic and scary.” That same year, an Iraqi refugee was removed from a Southwest flight after another passenger overheard him speaking Arabic on his cellphone.
A Muslim couple from Ohio returning from a European trip to celebrate their wedding anniversary were removed from a Delta Air flight in July 2016 after a flight attendant complained to the pilot that the couple made her uncomfortable.
On Feb. 17, 2020, Abobakkr and Mohamed boarded an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to San Francisco for a business trip.
While waiting in their first-class seats for take-off, Abobakkr exchanged a few text messages in Arabic on his cellphone.
A nearby passenger, who did not speak Arabic, noticed and reported those text messages to a flight attendant as suspicious, according to CAIR.
The two friends were then asked to deboard the plane and questioned for approximately two hours, they said at Monday’s press conference. Abobakkr said that he was directed to hand over his phone and that officials went through the text messages in question as well as other content on his phone, including his photos.
The text messages were translated by an Alaska Airlines representative, the men said, and they were questioned by a Port of Seattle police officer, the TSA and the FBI.
Even though the text messages were deemed innocuous by police, the remaining passengers were also forced to deplane so that the airline could conduct a security sweep of the cargo with a K9 unit.
Even after the investigation concluded that the men did not pose any threat, they said the Alaska Airlines representative prohibited them from reboarding their original flight and booked them onto later, separate flights, forcing them to miss their events in San Francisco.
Huffington Post / ABC Flash Point Aviation News 2020.