"Flying While Brown!"
Lawsuits Accuse 4 Airlines of Bias
Men Say Perceived Ethnicity Got Them Taken Off Flights
5 June 2002
By a Washington Post Staff Writer
|David Rocah, an attorney with the ACLU, and his client, Hassan Sader, are suing American Airlines for making Sader change flights because another passenger complained. (The Washington Post)
Five men and the nation's largest Arab American civil rights group sued four major U.S. airlines in federal courts across the country yesterday, alleging discrimination since Sept. 11 against passengers perceived to be of Arab descent.
The five lawsuits, among the most wide-ranging legal challenges filed by Arab Americans regarding their treatment in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were brought by the individuals and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Maryland, California and New Jersey. Two of the five men are of Arab descent, and four are U.S. citizens. The fifth is a Florida mathematics professor who is a permanent resident.
All of the plaintiffs said that after they cleared airport security, airline crew members or other passengers complained about their presence, with one passenger worrying aloud about "those brown-skinned men." All five were pulled off their flights or denied boarding and given seats on later flights.
"A new and disturbing trend is occurring at American airports, the practice of removing passengers because of their perceived ethnicity," said Ziad Asali, director of the ADC, which joined three of the lawsuits as a plaintiff on behalf of its members. "This phenomenon was unknown before September 11 . . . and it must stop."
The American Civil Liberties Union and a D.C. civil rights firm headed by John Relman are representing the plaintiffs. Reginald Shuford, an ACLU lawyer based in New York, said that there are no precise numbers on how frequently the practice occurs but that it "appears to be widespread."
"After 9/11, our clients expected a higher level of scrutiny when they fly, more security checks, and they've come to accept that," Shuford said. "But once you've passed all the security checks and all you want to do is fly, there's nothing fair or security-oriented about being asked to get off your flight because someone on board isn't comfortable with you being there."
The airlines named in the suits are American, Continental, Northwest and United. Most of the companies responded strongly to the suits yesterday, denying allegations of prejudice.
"We are enormously disappointed in this lawsuit," American Airlines said in an unsigned statement. "Many people of many ethnicities and national origins have been inconvenienced by our nation's heightened emphasis on security since September 11. Though we regret that some people feel they have been offended by these precautions, security and safety are -- and must be -- the primary concern of any flight crew."
Mary Beth Schubert, a spokeswoman for Northwest Airlines, said the company had reviewed the Oct. 23 incident outlined in the suit brought by Arshad Chowdhury, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi descent, and concluded that employees acted within Federal Aviation Administration guidelines in stopping Chowdhury from boarding. The ADC said that it had received at least 60 formal complaints of discrimination since Sept. 11 but that the number of unreported incidents is far higher. The U.S. Department of Transportation logged 84 discrimination complaints in the first three months of this year, according to papers included in the lawsuits.
In perhaps the most high-profile incident, though not part of the suits, an Arab American Secret Service agent was pulled off an American Airlines flight Dec. 25 after the airline noticed a discrepancy in the paperwork he had filed to carry his gun on board.
In the suits filed yesterday, the plaintiffs are seeking unspecified monetary damages as well as a court injunction that would order the airlines to cease discriminatory actions.
For Hassan Sader, an Arlington-based tennis coach of Moroccan descent, the confrontation began when he went to Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Oct. 31 to board an American Airlines flight to Seattle. After clearing security, he put his carry-on bag of tennis rackets in the overhead bin and settled into his seat.
"I noticed a female passenger and a flight attendant talking and looking in my direction," he said yesterday. "A few minutes later, I was asked to leave by an American Airlines agent. I was confused but did everything the agent asked me to do. . . . I was finally told that one of the passengers didn't feel comfortable with me flying on the plane."
Sader, 36, was booked on a later flight.
"If I was a security threat, why would they have put me on another plane?" he said.
American's statement did not specifically address Sader's allegations.
Assem Bayaa, an audit manager for the Arthur Andersen accounting office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was kicked off his Dec. 23 United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York, the first stage of a return trip to Saudi Arabia. Bayaa, 40, who is of Lebanese and Palestinian descent, was examined so closely by security personnel that he was the last passenger to board the plane, according to the suit.
But before he could take his seat, he was approached by a flight attendant, who asked him to step to the front of the plane. He was then asked by security personnel to leave the plane.
"The crew does not feel comfortable with you on board," Bayaa said he was told.
United declined to comment on specifics of the lawsuit, according to the Associated Press.