WASHINGTON, (AP) – Nine Muslim passengers were kicked off a flight from Washington, D.C., to Florida after other passengers reported hearing a suspicious remark about airplane security.
AirTran Airways spokesman Tad Hutcheson called the incident on the New Year’s Day flight from Reagan National Airport to Orlando, Fla., a misunderstanding, but defended the company’s response. He said the airline followed federal rules and did nothing wrong.
One of the Muslim passengers, Kashif Irfan, told The Washington Post the confusion began when his brother was talking about the safest place to sit on an airplane.
“My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security,” Irfan said. “The only thing my brother said was, ‘Wow, the jets are right next to my window.'”
Irfan told the newspaper he thought he and the others were profiled because of their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore headscarves, traditional Muslim attire.
Irfan, 34, is an anesthesiologist and his brother is a lawyer. Both live in Alexandria, Va., with their families, and were born in Detroit. They were traveling with their wives, Irfan’s sister-in-law and Irfan’s three sons, ages 7, 4 and 2. A family friend also was traveling with the group to a religious retreat in Florida.
Federal officials ordered the rest of the passengers from the plane and re-screened them before allowing the flight to depart.
The family was upset that AirTran didn’t allow the Muslim passengers to book another flight. They eventually made it to their destination on a US Airways flight.
“The FBI agents actually cleared our names,” Inayet Sahin, one of the family members kicked off the flight, told CNN. “They went on our behalf and spoke to the airlines and said, ‘There is no suspicious activity here. They are clear. Please let them get on a flight so they can go on their vacation,’ and they still refused.”
Hutcheson said the passengers were given a full refund and are welcome to fly on AirTran now that the investigation is complete.
Hutcheson and a federal Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman said the pilot was right to postpone the flight.
“At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn’t have made on the airplane, and other people heard them,” Hutcheson said. “Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions.”
One of the passengers removed, Abdur Razack Aziz, said he will consider a lawsuit.