Panicking airline staff remove US Muslims from flight

Nine Muslims, including three children and eight US citizens, were ordered off a domestic flight on an Airtran flight bound from Washington to Orlando, after a misunderstanding over a conversation about airline safety.


AFP - Nine Muslims, including three children, were ordered off a domestic US flight after two other passengers heard one of the Muslims make what they believed were suspicious remarks about security, US media reported Friday.

The passengers, eight of whom are US citizens, were in Washington Thursday afternoon on an AirTran flight bound for Orlando, Florida where they were to attend a religious retreat, and were eventually cleared for travel by the FBI, The Washington Post reported.

The airline and FBI called the incident a misunderstanding, but AirTran reportedly refused to rebook the passengers, who had to pay for seats on another carrier.

Kashif Irfan, 34, said his younger brother Atif and his brother's wife were discussing the safest place to sit on the plane, when they were overheard by two young girls who told a flight attendant.

"My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security," he told the Post. "The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window."

Atif Irfan told CNN television they had been "careful not to use any buzz words like bomb, threats, anything that would put us in a volatile situation."

While he said the air marshals and FBI agents were "pretty kind and generous" with dealing with the situation, he blamed the airline.

"The FBI agents actually spoke with the AirTran personnel at Washington Reagan (National) Airport and encouraged them to let us fly again in another flight towards Orlando," he said.

"AirTran refused, despite the fact we were cleared on any allegations of wrongdoing."

The airline "clearly stated," said Atif, that the family members would be barred from boarding a flight or booking a reservation with the company "any time in the near future."

Irfan, who was also traveling with his wife, a sister-in-law, a friend and Irfan's three sons ages seven, four, and two, said action was taken against his group because of the way they looked. The women wore traditional Muslim headscarves and the men beards.

An airline spokesman, Tad Hutcheson, defended AirTran's handling of the situation, before the company later issued a muted apology.

"At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn't have made on the airplane," he was quoted as saying.

"Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance," Hutcheson added. "It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions."

The pilot postponed the flight, and federal officials ordered all 104 passengers off the plane to re-screen them and their luggage before allowing the flight to go to Orlando, two hours late and without the nine passengers.

Ellen Howe, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the pilot acted appropriately.

"It was an ordeal," said Abdur Razack Aziz, one of the detained. "Nothing came out of it. It was paranoid people. It was very sad."

AirTran later issued a statement saying "Our goal at AirTran Airways is to offer a safe, pleasant and positive travel experience for all customers every day on every flight. We sincerely regret that the passengers on flight 175 did not have a positive travel experience on January 1, 2009.

"Security is a shared responsibility and this incident highlights the multiple layers of security that are in place in today's aviation environment. While ultimately this issue proved to be a misunderstanding, the steps taken were necessary," the airline said.

It said "alert passengers reported to the flight crew what they believed were inappropriate comments allegedly made by one of the passengers onboard, and the flight crew notified the federal air marshals that were assigned to the flight (... While) we regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did on New Year's Day, ... we trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount and cannot be compromised."

"We apologize to all of the passengers -- to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight," it added.

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