Muslim families taken off flight

After helping deliver the District of Columbia’s first baby of 2009, Dr. Kashif Irfan boarded a flight to Orlando, Fla., with his wife, three children and other relatives to participate in a weekend retreat on the peaceful practice of Islam. But instead of taking off as scheduled, Irfan and his family were suddenly ordered off the plane, detained in the airport and refused passage by the airline after they were cleared by the FBI.

“I was thinking, ‘What could we have possibly done to render us liable to this form of treatment?’ ” said Irfan, a U.S. citizen born in Detroit.

The handling of the Irfan family, after comments one of them made about airline safety aroused suspicions of two teenage passengers, caused an uproar Friday among Muslim Americans.

Orlando-based AirTran Airways apologized to the family. It said it refunded their airfares, agreed to reimburse them for replacement tickets they bought on US Airways after they were refused passage Thursday, and offered to fly the passengers back to Washington free of charge.


“We apologize to all the passengers -- to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight,” the airline said in a statement. “Nobody on Flight 175 reached their destination on time on New Year’s Day, and we regret it.”

The airline called the incident a “misunderstanding,” but added that the steps that were taken were necessary to ensure security and safety.

The Irfan family was boarding Thursday when Irfan’s wife made a comment about the safest place to sit on the plane, according to Irfan’s brother Atif, who was also on the flight with his wife and wife’s sister.

“It was a very lighthearted conversation about the safest spot of the plane,” said Atif, 29, who is a lawyer in Alexandria, Va. “But, I guess, these two teenage girls had gleaned from our conversation that we were going to try and take over the plane.”

That conversation caused the eight family members and a friend, who was also traveling to the conference, to be escorted off the plane and questioned by FBI agents. Federal officials removed the rest of the passengers, did a sweep of the aircraft and then re-screened everyone before allowing the flight to depart about two hours behind schedule.

The Irfan brothers said Friday that they thought they had been profiled based on their appearances. The men had beards, and the women wore head scarves.

“We are Muslim Americans, and we fly a lot. So we understand there is a lot of scrutiny on us in the first place,” Atif said. “But we consider ourselves to be model citizens. We were born here; we went to high school and college here. It was appalling to know that this type of stuff can happen to you.”

Even after the FBI cleared the family and their friend, AirTran refused to book them on another flight.


In an earlier news release Friday, the airline said that one of the passengers became irate and made inappropriate comments and had to be escorted away from a gate by local law enforcement.

Irfan disputed that contention. He said no one was escorted from the gate.

“My wife was perhaps irritated but was in no way hostile,” Irfan said. “She was very upset that despite being humiliated on the plane, and despite being cleared, we were not going to be allowed to reschedule our flight. That was the last straw, she just couldn’t hold her feelings back anymore of being treated like a second-class citizen and having her civil rights trampled on.”

Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, called the situation unusual.


“I find it highly unlikely that a Caucasian family [in the same situation] would be subjected to the same type of treatment,” Al-Qatami said. The Irfan brothers are of Indian descent.

In recent years, other Muslim travelers have faced similar problems. In 2006, an Iraqi human rights activist was made to remove a shirt reading “we will not be silent” in English and Arabic before he was allowed to board a plane in New York. The same year, six Muslim imams were escorted off a US Airways flight in Minneapolis after they prayed together in Arabic.

The Irfan family incident prompted the Council for American-Islamic Relations to file a complaint Friday with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

But the Transportation Security Administration said the proper protocol had been followed. After passengers are cleared for travel it is up to the airline to seat them, TSA spokesman Christopher White said. “The pilot ultimately has the authority of who flies in his or her aircraft,” White said.