Two young Muslim American women were removed from an American Airlines plane this week because a male airline attendant was said to have felt threatened by their presence.
According to one of the women, the incident began when American Airlines Flight 2239 was delayed Tuesday for more than five hours in Miami because of flight preparation issues and heavy rain.
“The situation was really humiliating and it was dehumanizing," Niala Mohammad Khalil told VOA. "I mean, if it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody. It doesn’t matter how assimilated you are. I don’t have to wear a hijab to be discriminated against.”
Khalil and her friend, who did not want to be identified, are both employed by the U.S. government and must therefore undergo periodic security investigations.
Passengers who remained aboard the plane during the delay were offered one glass of water and a bag of pretzels after more than five hours, prompting a conversation between Khalil’s friend and a white male passenger sitting behind them about the lack of customer care, according to Khalil.
Problem? 'You can leave'
A male flight attendant overheard the conversation, said Khalil, who was watching a Pakistani movie and listening to it via headphones at the time. “If you have a problem, you can leave the plane,” the male attendant told the friend, according to Khalil, a journalist with VOA.
Khalil then asked a female flight attendant walking by for her male colleague’s name. Not sure who he was, the female attendant asked Khalil and her friend to “point him out when you see him.”
The friend took a photo of the male attendant to show the female attendant. A third flight attendant walked by and said the friend committed a “federal offense” by taking a picture aboard a plane.
When the first female attendant returned, the photo of the male attendant was presented to her. She identified him as “Rog, as in Roger” and then asked that the photo be deleted. Khalil said her friend promptly deleted the photo in the presence of the female attendant, although the image was automatically saved in the camera’s “delete” folder.
About 10 minutes later, American Airlines representative Lourdes Broco boarded the plane and asked Khalil and her friend to bring their belongings to the front of the plane. They were met at the ramp by several armed federal air marshals and Miami-Dade police officers, Khalil said.
When asked why they, and not the white male, were removed from the plane, Broco responded that “the [male attendant] said he felt unsafe and threatened,” according to Khalil.
Khalil then asked Broco whether they had been singled out because of their Muslim names. Broco, said Khalil, responded by saying, “It’s just airline regulation. If the flight attendant says he feels unsafe or uncomfortable for whatever reason, then we have to take those passengers off the flight.”
“I work with the Voice of America,” Khalil said. “I work here every day to promote democracy and freedom to a predominately Muslim region. Yet at home, in America, my own home country, I’m faced with this type of discrimination and intolerance.”
A spokeswoman for American Airlines said the male flight attendant observed the passenger taking pictures and asked her to stop. When she did not, the attendant had her removed from the plane.
"The passenger was not removed for taking the picture," said spokeswoman Alexis Aran Coello. "The passenger was removed because she did not comply with the request from the flight attendant."
Coello said the flight attendant who called taking photos on a plane a "federal offense" was incorrect. But she said American Airlines does allow its flight attendants to remove passengers who do not comply with a request to stop taking pictures, if the photography is making someone uneasy.
Coello also said the subject of religion "never came up" between the passenger, her traveling companion and the customer service manager who handled the situation. She said the two women remained calm and did not complain of discrimination at the time. She said both were given $200 vouchers and put on another flight later that evening.