2 Muslim women kicked off American Airlines flight in Miami

Niala Mohammad Khalil

Two Muslim-American women were kicked off an American Airlines flight this week, basically for flying while Muslim.

The women were identified as "noncompliant" by a flight attendant who said he overheard them talking with other passengers about how there was not enough food or water on their delayed plane which was sitting on the tarmac for 5 hours. Their complaints about how bad the experience was made him “uncomfortable,” so he decided they must be terrorists. The flight attendant also told the women that taking photos on a plane was a "federal offense." This is just made-up bullshit.

Niala Mohammed Khalil is a Voice of America journalist, and told the story on her Facebook page Wednesday.

The person she was traveling with is a federal government worker who prefers not to be identified. Both women are employed by the U.S. government, and must undergo periodic security investigations. Neither are terrorists.

Despite this, they were confronted by armed air marshals and police officers at Miami International Airport, and interrogated as individuals who posed a security risk.

“The situation was really humiliating and it was dehumanizing," 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.”

“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.”

An American Airlines spokeswoman told the New York Times that the passengers were removed for “noncompliance,” and disputed Ms. Khalil’s account. American says religion had nothing to do with it.

“Wow. Way to cover yourselves,” Khalil replied, on Facebook. “This issue of being Muslim was actually spoken about openly with the Miami-Dade police officers. There was no issue of 'non-compliance.' This is extremely disappointing.”

The incident happened on Aug. 2 when she and her friend got on Flight 2239 to Washington. Khalil said the plane was delayed for various reasons, and passengers had to spend five hours on the plane, on the tarmac, with only water and pretzels. Khalil says a white guy sitting behind the her and her friend began talking with them “about the lack of customer care.”

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Here is Niala Khalil's first-hand account, posted to Facebook:

Last night my friend and I were removed from American Airlines (AA) flight 2239 traveling from Miami International Airport (MIA) to Washington-Reagan National Airport (DCA) because the main crew airline attendant felt "unsafe" by our presence. Yup, the only two apparent Muslim girls on the plane got kicked off. Not sure if it was my friend's statement "evil-eye" bracelet, the fact that I was watching a Pakistani drama on my iPhone, or our obvious Muslim last names that made him uncomfortable, but here's the kicker, we both work for the United States Federal government.

This is the story.

According to the flight attendants, our initial flight delays were due to two changes with the flight crew and then the ground crew forgot to fuel the plane. After those delays, we began experiencing heavy rains and were delayed indefinitely. After exceeding the 3 hour federal regulation, the only people allowed to deplane were those who wanted to cancel their flight or make other travel arrangements at their own expense. After over 5 hours aboard the grounded plane, we were only offered one glass of water, a bag of pretzels, and told there would be no more food or beverage. A flight attendant informed us we were not allowed to purchase in-flight food unless we were in the air and we were denied the right to deplane to get food or use the airport restrooms. Air fuel fumes also began to permeate the cabin space. At one point, a white male passenger sitting directly behind us initiated a private conversation with my friend about the lack of customer care. Suddenly, a male flight attendant walking by singled out my friend and stated, "If you have a problem, you can get off the plane." My friend replied, "I have no problem--I am simply stating facts. We were given one glass of water in 5 hours." The attendant responded by once again threatening my friend, "Well, I can have you removed for instigating other passengers." The flight attendant was not wearing his name badge and did not identify himself.

Since I was wearing headphones (watching my Pakistani drama), I only realized something happened when my friend's demeanor changed. She appeared shocked and visibly upset after the attendant walked away. When she and the white male passenger behind us told me what happened, I suggested we write a complaint to AA. At that time, a number of AA personnel were on the plane allowing new passengers to board our delayed flight. A female flight attendant walked by and I asked for the male flight attendant's name, given his rude and aggressive tone to my friend. There was some confusion as to whether the male AA employee in question was a flight attendant, a pilot, etc so before walking away to assist other passengers, she directed us to "point him out to me when you see him." After she walked away, we saw him again and my friend took a picture so the female flight attendant could help identify him for us. A third flight attendant walked by and told us that by taking a picture, we were committing a "federal offense".

(Disclaimer: taking a photo of an airline crew member is not a federal offense, but apparently there is a publicly unknown AA policy that crew members can arbitrarily enforce with customers when a photo is taken without their consent.)

The initial female flight attendant came back, asked us what happened, and we showed her the picture. She identified the male flight attendant as "Rog as in Roger" and then asked that we delete the picture. We immediately obliged and deliberately showed the flight attendant that we were deleting the picture. Thankfully, we still had the picture saved because it went to the "delete" folder.

Ten minutes later, AA customer relations representative Ms. Lourdes Broco boarded the plane and kindly asked if we could follow her to the front. We happily consented, hoping we were finally going to be provided with water, but instead we were told to bring our belongings. Waiting for us at the ramp were several armed Air Marshalls and Miami-Dade police officers. When asked why we were being removed, we were informed that it was because "Rog" felt threatened by us. However, the white male passenger my friend was speaking to was ironically not removed from the plane with us. We complied with all requests and provided Ms. Broco with our version of the events. She apologized and stated that under normal conditions, the male flight attendant would have been removed from the plane, but AA couldn't spare to do that given the extreme flight delay and the many issues with the crew. She freely admitted that it was obvious that the flight attendant "exaggerated" the incident. We also overheard Ms. Broco inform the security officers that when she boarded the plane to assess the situation, she was confused because we weren't creating a scene, we were sitting in silence playing on our phones.

Without asking for anything, we were assigned to the next available flight to DCA, we were offered a $200 credit for future travel with American Airlines and a $24 food voucher, but the damage was already done. We appreciated both Ms. Broco's attempt to offer us some compensation and the 5 security officers good humor in deescalating the situation. However, it didn't take away from the fact that a rude AA employee got away with treating passengers with such utter contempt and discrimination. Although we were encouraged to document the incident to AA customer relations, we still experienced insult and embarrassment as two minority Muslim-American women. For being such a "threat" to an AA attendant, it's telling that the Miami-Dade police officers joked with us and posed for this picture with the "pretty harmless" airplane menaces. This was a fairytale ending in comparison to the other largely publicized AA incidents targeting Muslim Americans (one was actually a Sikh) that occurred earlier this year. Our story also has many parallels to an incident experienced by Internet political and social commentator Cenk Uygur, who was removed from an AA flight in April 2016. Could this be a trend?

We eventually left MIA at 12:40 am the next morning on AA flight number 1486, which arrived at DCA at 2:50 am on 3 August. Consequently, we both missed work that day. This entire experience was not very "American" of AA and the incident demonstrated the ongoing, indiscrete racism that I was untouched by prior to 9/11.
I guess it's now worthless to even complain about the inbound 3 hour flight delay we experienced departing from DCA to start our vacation to Miami. We hope that Department of Transportation will hold AA accountable given that new rules state that an airline can be fined up to $27,500 for each passenger on board a flight affected by egregious tarmac delays.

This story comes just one day after the reports of a British Muslim woman detained for reading a book about Syria while flying,