BOSTON // Airlines in the United States are being accused of racial profiling and pandering to Islamophobia by ejecting a number of Muslim passengers from flights.
In recent months, travellers have been turfed off because other passengers – or in some cases, cabin crew – have felt “uncomfortable” with the presence of Muslims on board.
The incidents have taken place against a backdrop of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump saying he would impose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Some believe his rhetoric has fuelled the anxiety among airline passengers and crew.
Last month, Niala Khalil, a Muslim-American journalist working for the US government-funded Voice of America radio, was escorted off an American Airlines flight from Miami to Washington with her travelling companion.
Her friend, also a Muslim American, started talking to a white male passenger about the “lack of customer care”, according to Khalil’s Facebook page. They had been stuck on the tarmac for more than five hours, and were only offered a glass of water and a bag of pretzels during that time.
“Suddenly, a male flight attendant walking by singled out my friend and stated, ‘If you have a problem, you can get off the plane’,” Khalil said.
The incident escalated and culminated with the two Muslim women – but not the white passenger – being forced to disembark.
American Airlines and Miami-Dade police officers later explained that the male flight attendant had “felt threatened” by the women. While they were placed on the next flight and compensated, “we still experienced insult and embarrassment”, Khalil said.
"It is not the America I was born and raised in. The country was founded on tolerance and freedom and this goes against everything this country stands for," Khalil told The National.
Mohammed Al Khalifa, 23, a student about to begin his master’s degree at Columbia University, was thrown off a Delta flight from Amsterdam to New York in July.
“I fell asleep as soon as I got to my seat, I woke up a while later only to find out the plane turned back to the gate.”
He was approached by ground security who said he was to be removed from the plane “because a number of passengers complained that I ‘looked suspicious’.”
“I told them I was a student at Columbia and had a diplomatic passport. The experience was dehumanising and embarrassing.”
In April, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, 26, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, received similar treatment on a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland, California after another passenger was alarmed at hearing him speak Arabic in a call to his father.
The phrase which appears to have caused offence was “inshallah”, which means “if God wills it”.
Southwest refused to fly him home and refunded his fare.
A month later, Italian maths professor Guido Menzi was taken off an American Airlines flight because a passenger sitting next to him thought the algebraic scrawl that the slightly swarthy, curly-haired academic had jotted on his notepad was Arabic.
Some say they have had enough. Four passengers, three Muslim and one Sikh – all US citizens – have sued American Airlines after being thrown off a flight from Toronto to New York.
The crew, including the pilot, felt uneasy at their presence on the flight. According to the writ, an airline agent said their dark skin and beards “did not help”.
The writ alleges the airline “disgracefully engaged in the discrimination ... based on their perceived race, colour, ethnicity, alienage and/or national origin”.
“People are being thrown off flights because a passenger or flight attendant feels uncomfortable. It can be that they don’t like what they can see on your phone,” said an official from a community advocacy group.
“Normally they are put on to another flight, sometimes after detention.”
A spokesman for Airlines for America, the trade group representing US carriers, said: “Ensuring a safe and welcoming travel experience for all of our customers remains the airlines’ highest priority. On rare occasions, the professionals onboard the plane make the difficult decision of removing a passenger due to concerns about the safety of the flight.”
“Airline employees rely on their extensive customer service training, while ensuring that the highest levels of safety are met for the 2.2 million passengers who fly on US airlines every day. Our members do not tolerate discrimination in any form,” he said.
The department of transportation in Washington said airline captains had the right to refuse to carry a passenger if they believed the plane’s safety was at risk. But they are banned from excluding a passenger on grounds of race, nationality or religion, a spokesman said.