- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Muslim advocacy group filed a complaint Friday with the Transportation Department over a New Year’s Day incident at a Washington airport in which nine Muslim passengers were removed from a flight after other passengers said they overheard a suspicious remark about airplane security.

AirTran Airways on Friday apologized for the incident, which occurred Thursday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, saying it was a “misunderstanding.”

But the airline said it was only following security guidelines and that appropriate and necessary steps had been taken in the removal of the passengers.

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said it was working with the passengers, all Muslims, to deal with “the civil liberties issues” that resulted from the incident.

“It is incumbent on any airline to ensure that members of the traveling public are not singled out or mistreated based on their perceived race, religion or national origin,” the complaint said. “We believe this disturbing incident would never have occurred had the Muslim passengers removed from the plane not been perceived by other travelers and airline personnel as members of the Islamic faith.”

CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said his group is working with the passengers and is considering legal action against AirTran.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council also called on federal officials Friday to open an investigation.

The incident aboard the plane bound for Orlando, Fla., involved two families traveling together and a friend who knew the families but who wasn’t traveling with them.

One of the Muslim passengers, Dr. Kashif Irfan, said the confusion began when his brother was talking about the safest place to sit on an airplane, according to an Associated Press report.

“My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security,” he said. “The only thing my brother said was, ‘Wow, the jets are right next to my window.’”

Other passengers who overheard the remark alerted the flight crew to what they said was an inappropriate comment. The crew notified two federal air marshals on board, who contacted local and federal law enforcement officials who escorted the Muslim passengers off the plane. Federal officials also ordered the other 95 passengers off the plane and re-screened them and their luggage before allowing the flight to depart about two hours late.

Dr. Irfan told the AP he thought he and the others were profiled because of their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore head scarves, traditional Muslim attire.

Dr. Irfan, 34, is an anesthesiologist and his brother is a lawyer. Both live in Alexandria, Va., with their families, and were born in Detroit, the AP said. They were traveling with their wives, Dr. Irfan’s sister-in-law and his three sons, ages 7, 4 and 2.

One of the Muslim passengers later in the day became irate when he was told that AirTran wouldn’t book him on another flight, and airline officials said he then made inappropriate comments at a customer service counter at the gate. Local law enforcement officials escorted him and other passengers away from the counter.

The nine passengers eventually made it to their destination on a US Airways flight after authorities cleared them to fly.

Transportation spokesman Bill Adams said Friday evening that the department hadn’t received CAIR’s complaint but that it “thoroughly investigates every complaint it receives involving discrimination.”

AirTran said it regrets the incident escalated to the heightened security level, but said that it complied with all Transportation Security Administration, Homeland Security and law enforcement directives and had no discretion in the matter.

“We sincerely regret that the passengers on Flight 175 did not have a positive travel experience,” the airline said in a statement released Friday. “We trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount and cannot be compromised.”

TSA said the passengers who alerted the flight crew to what they considered a suspicious remark, as well as the crew, acted responsibly.

“TSA counts a vigilant traveling public as an important layer of security and continues to encourage passengers to be alert and report suspicious activity,” the agency said.

AirTran refunded the fares of the passengers who were removed from the flight and said it would reimburse them for expenses incurred by taking another airline. It also has offered to pay for their return passage to Washington.

But CAIR said the airline overreacted and called booting all nine Muslims off the plane inexcusable.

“If one person made a remark that somebody thought was suspicious, why were nine people kept off the flight?” Mr. Hooper said.