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21 Dec, 2011

Muslim Religious Leaders Sue U.S. Airline Over Removal from Flight

Attorneys from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and United Firm of Carolina Law (UFC Law) have filed a lawsuit against Delta Air Lines and Atlantic Southeast Airlines for removing two Islamic religious leaders, or imams, from a flight from Memphis, Tennessee, to Charlotte, N.C., in May 2011 after the pilot refused to fly with them on board.

The suit alleges that the “defendants’ actions … were arbitrary and capricious and fall far outside the permissive scope of transport refusal under the Federal Aviation Act.” It demands unspecified compensation and damages as well as a permanent injunction “prohibiting the defendants, its directors, officers, agents, pilots, and employees from singling out passengers for mistreatment based on their perceived race, color, ethnicity, religion, alienage, ancestry, and/or national origin.”

The lawsuit also seeks a court order for “the Defendants, their directors, officers, agents, pilots, and employees to take all affirmative steps necessary to remedy the effects of the illegal, discriminatory conduct described herein and to prevent similar occurrences in the future.”

Commenting on the lawsuit, the two airlines released a statement saying thus: “Atlantic Southeast and Delta oppose discrimination in any form from any source and our employees act at all times in the best interest of passenger safety and security. We cannot comment further on pending litigation.”

CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. The filing of the lawsuit was announced at a Press conference in Washington DC o 19 December 2011.

According to the lawsuit, on May 6, 2011, Masudur Rahman, an Arabic-language adjunct professor at the University of Memphis, in Memphis, Tennessee, and Mohamed Zaghloul, a religious leader at the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, were on their way to attend a national conference about countering the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry. Mr. Rahman is originally from Pakistan and Mr. Zaghloul originally from Egypt.

Says the lawsuit, “After going through the terminal’s security checkpoint, receiving an additional random pat down once in the terminal, and getting searched invasively subsequent to being escorted off the plane, Delta and ASA cannot claim—with a straight face, at least—that Mr. Rahman and Mr. Zaghloul posed any type of a security threat. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel thoroughly vetted Mr. Rahman and Mr. Zaghloul and communicated that they were normal, everyday passengers who did not pose any security threats. Defendants’ flight crew, however, arrived, through bigoted means, to a different conclusion.”

It says that prior to arriving at the airport, Mr. Rahman checked in for Flight #5452 online, and, upon reaching the airport, Mr. Zaghloul checked in at the counter. “Both Plaintiffs proceeded to go through the normal TSA checkpoint, and Plaintiffs and their belongings, after being screened, were cleared to proceed to their gate.

“While Plaintiffs were waiting at their gate to board the plane, Plaintiffs were both pulled aside from the mainline and told that they would be subject to a random, secondary security check and search.

“Despite it being quite odd and out-of-the-ordinary, Plaintiffs willingly complied and cooperated to the best of their ability. TSA agents asked Plaintiffs for their identification, Plaintiffs were questioned regarding the purpose of their trip to North Carolina, and, finally, TSA searched their luggage and belongings. TSA agents, again, cleared the Plaintiffs and Plaintiffs entered Defendants’ plane.

“Plaintiffs boarded the aircraft and placed their luggage in the overhead compartment and took their seats. Plaintiffs were not seated next to each other; rather, approximately five rows of seating separated the Plaintiffs.

“Once seated, both Plaintiffs exchanged pleasantries with the passengers seated next to each of them. At no time, did either Plaintiff sense that any passenger felt uncomfortable with or by either of them – whether by their appearances, their conduct, or otherwise.

“Thereafter, while the passengers of the aircraft were seated and the airplane still at the gate, Defendants’ agent came onto the airplane and, once again, asked Plaintiffs to produce and provide their photo identification. Again, both Plaintiffs willingly complied with the request. After the Defendants’ agent checked Plaintiffs’ identification, Plaintiffs were cleared again, and Defendants’ agent left the airplane.”

However, the suit alleges, “Moments after the plane began to taxi the runway and prepare for takeoff, Defendants’ pilot announced that the plane had to go back to the gate. Once the pilot returned the plane to the gate, Defendants’ pilot ordered both Plaintiffs to get their bags and immediately leave the airplane. The agents took Plaintiffs through the jet-way and required them to wait near the gate.

“Several of Defendants’ and TSA’s agents approached Plaintiffs upon return to the terminal. While Defendants’ agents watched, TSA agents searched Plaintiffs’ bags yet again and conducted a comprehensive body pat-down. The agents, again, checked Plaintiffs’ identification and asked Mr. Rahman a few questions about his work.

“A TSA agent then thanked the Plaintiffs for their cooperation and cleared them to board the plane, once again.. The Plaintiffs returned to the gate to board their flight. However, Defendant Delta’s supervisor directed them not to enter, because Defendants’ pilot was not allowing them onto the airplane. Plaintiffs asked why, and Defendant Delta’s supervisor stated that the Defendants’ pilot refused to articulate a reason for denying Plaintiffs entry onto the airplane. Defendant Delta’s supervisor explained that the Plaintiffs were entitled to board the plane after clearing the additional security screenings.

“Plaintiffs insisted that Defendant Delta’s supervisor obtain a reason for the Defendant’s pilot’s denial from the pilot himself. The supervisor agreed that this was appropriate and entered the plane with the apparent purpose of explaining to the pilot that the pilot lacked a rational basis for excluding Plaintiffs.

“When Defendant Delta’s supervisor returned, he was irate by Defendants’ pilot’s obstinate refusal to articulate a reason as to why the pilot was denying Plaintiffs’ boarding. The supervisor encapsulated his assessment of Defendants’ pilot’s actions in the following words: ―He is wrong.

“Defendant Delta’s supervisor told Plaintiffs that he called a higher-ranking employee to come help address the situation. While the Plaintiffs waited for the employee to arrive, Flight Number 5452, which they originally purchased tickets for, which they originally were cleared for, which they originally boarded, and, which they were subsequently removed from, departed from the gate.

“When the higher-ranking employee arrived, he ordered the plane back to the terminal. The employee then boarded the plane to speak directly with the pilot. The employee returned to the terminal thirty minutes later and was visibly distraught. He explained that the pilot, despite acknowledging that both Plaintiffs were cleared to board, was personally objecting to the Plaintiffs being on his flight. The pilot indicated that he believed the mere presence and perception of the Plaintiffs on his plane would make other passengers feel uncomfortable.

“In response to Defendants’ pilot’s suggestion that the mere presence and perception of the Plaintiffs would make other passengers feel uncomfortable, Defendant Delta’s higher-ranking employee left the cockpit and made an announcement in the cabin of the airplane. He stated that if any of the passengers felt apprehensive about either of the Plaintiffs being on the flight, then those passengers could choose to depart later on a different plane and, in addition, they would receive a generous voucher. Except for the pilot, however, no one else on that plane indicated that they were uncomfortable with either Plaintiff being on the flight.

“Ultimately, Defendants did not allow either Plaintiff to board the flight. Despite having been cleared twice by TSA agents, Defendants’ pilot took the matter into his own hands when he chose to eject Plaintiffs from the flight based on arbitrary and capricious reasons, including his personal preconceived notions of race, religion, and national origin.”

The suit alleges that in making the decision to exclude the Plaintiffs from the aircraft, the Defendant’s pilot relied on: (1) the traditional clothing the Plaintiffs wore, including traditional Arab and Muslim garb; (2) the Plaintiff’s facial hair; (3) the dark-colored skin of the Plaintiffs; (4) the accented English displayed by the Plaintiffs. Nothing about the Plaintiffs’ behavior was inimical to safety, an allegation that was asserted by the Defendants’ employees. There were no allegations by any passengers or flight staff that Plaintiffs were engaged in any suspicious behavior.

To read the entire lawsuit, CLICK HERE.

See also: “Racial Profiling An Issue At Aviation Security Conference

Download Paper: Facilitation and security of travel documents and border control formalities