After almost a week soaking in the ambient romance of Paris in July 2016, the Alis boarded a return flight to their Cleveland home. The short walk to their second-row seats left time to store their bags, remove their shoes, and murmur a few words of prayer asking for safe travel. That prayer ended with “inshalla,” God willing in Arabic.
But after 45 minutes, Ali noticed, the usual orders about electronic devices and tray tables hadn’t come. A Delta staffer approached.
“‘Mr. and Mrs. Ali, I need you to get off the plane with me,'” recalled Nazia Ali, a Pakistani-American who wears a hijab over her hair. “He said, ‘Please grab all of your things. You are no longer taking this flight.'”
The passenger removal that captured national attention last week – one in which law enforcement officers peeled David Dao from his seat and dragged him, bleeding, up the aisle – united Americans in righteous indignation. But cases in which airlines force passengers to surrender their seats are regulated and in a long-term pattern of decline. What appears to be a growing phenomenon – but less closely monitored by regulators – is the kind of passenger removal the Alis say they encountered, one driven by racial, ethnic or religious profiling.
While the Department of Transportation tracks removals due to full flights, the agency doesn’t log those tied to complaints of discrimination. But advocacy groups say that the number of civil rights complaints filed by people removed after flight crews or passengers raised security concerns related to innocuous conversations in a foreign language or other matters tied to skin color or religion spiked in 2016.
That year, passengers filed 94 civil rights complaints against U.S. airlines and those flying into the country, according to federal data. That’s up almost 45 percent from 2015.
The Alis’ story was among several removals that became public last year: the olive-skinned economics professor reported by a passenger for working on a mathematical equation; the man with a generous beard ejected after a passenger complained that he appeared Arabic and scary; the seven black passengers who weren’t traveling together removed after two had a dispute with a flight attendant; the Muslim woman who joined another passenger’s complaint about a five-hour tarmac wait; the black minister and civil rights activist escorted off a plane after nearby passengers lobbed race-themed insults his way. In each case, the airlines insisted security concerns alone motivated events.
The uptick in these cases could represent a new and intense round in the tug of war between national security and civil rights. But they have garnered little outrage, often freighted with nebulous proof of prejudice or indifference to it. Unlike Dao’s situation, they’re not the kind of customer service disasters that could ensnare any passenger and end in dramatic confrontations on video.
The “argument really boils down to my fears are more important than your rights,” said Corey Saylor, director of the Council on American Islamic Relations’ department that monitors and combats Islamophobia. “It’s better to not have a constitution and still be alive – that’s how I would sum this logic up.”
Airlines for America, an industry trade group, points out that there was one civil rights complaint filed against U.S.-based airlines per 10.3 million passengers in 2016.
The country’s air carriers “are committed to offering the highest levels of customer service and our members do not tolerate discrimination in any form,” the organization said in an emailed statement to The Washington Post.
Many civil rights organizations argue that bias-driven plane removals are underreported, because passengers fear complaints will lead to future trouble on flights, don’t know how to file a case, or are overwhelmed by the paperwork. By comparison, news reports of Dao’s dragging prompted a federal transit probe the same week.
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, wants airline passengers to make no mistake: What’s happening here matters.
“When airlines remove passengers based on how they look or the language that they speak,” Shamsi said, “they contribute to a climate that has grown recently and that most certainly does not add to security. They take our entire country to a place where people who believe in equality should not want to be.”
Nazia Ali says profiling has become a part of flying for her. She and her husband privately joke about how she’s subjected to random additional TSA screening every time she flies. But what happened last year was different. Nothing they said to the crew or law enforcement waiting on the Jetway mattered. A decision had already been made.
Delta first told reporters that a flight attendant had grown uncomfortable with the Alis because Faisal Ali was sweating, Nazia Ali was wearing a headscarf and at least one of them had used the word “Allah.” Then, the airline issued a statement affirming Delta’s commitment to equality, promising to refund the Ali’s money (they were rebooked on a direct flight to Cleveland the next day) and investigate the incident with care. Later, the airline emailed the Alis their findings: No discrimination occurred.
The couple was so troubled that, last year, they drove to Canada and Florida to avoid flying. They also contacted CAIR and filed a civil rights complaint.
“We would not accept this in any other industry,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of CAIR Chicago, “but because of the magic word – ‘security’ – that they can flash, that shuts a lot of people up.”
That’s the word that United used to explain why the airline removed Eaman and Mohamed Shebley and their three children from a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport en route to a spring break trip to Washington, D.C., in March 2016. The couple, who are Lebanese-American, say United Airlines and its partner operator SkyWest gave them conflicting information about using a booster seat for their 2 ½-year-old daughter. After Mohamed Shebley spoke to crew members on the plane, one began asking questions Shebley found alarming.
“They started asking all sorts of odd things,” he recalled. “‘Where did you buy your tickets?'”
Eaman Shebley put the booster away. Over the next hour, flight attendants and then the captain told the family to leave the plane. The couple asked repeatedly for explanation. Some in first class began to stand and point. A United crew member said the next step was police.
Nearby strangers tried to convince the crew the Shebleys hadn’t been a problem. But another passenger, a white man, yelled “Get off the plane, you all are going to jail,” Eaman Shebley said.
One of the couple’s children dissolved into tears. The Shebleys walked off the plane.
“Understand that had it not been for that decision,” said Rehab, “this could have been another dragging.”
On the Jetway, the pilot told the Shebleys they were noncompliant, a disruptive kind of security risk. Not long after, United had the Shebleys booked on a different flight to D.C.
After the trip, the couple contacted CAIR Chicago, and filed a civil rights complaint and a lawsuit.
In an emailed response to The Washington Post, United said, “Both SkyWest and United hold our employees to the highest standards of professionalism and have zero tolerance for discrimination.” In a separate statement, SkyWest added that “we ensure that all employees participate in training that supports our zero tolerance for discrimination.”
In the months since that flight, the Shebleys’ son has been anxious, a 9-year old who needs every logistical detail before they travel. At school, some kids tease him for getting kicked off a plane.
Fair-skinned and blue-eyed, Eaman Shebley wonders if her family would have been treated differently if she hadn’t worn a hijab.
That tangle of concerns is magnified across millions of Muslim-Americans, Rehab said.
“These incidents do not happen in a vacuum,” said Brenda F. Abdelall, a staff member with the civil rights organization Muslim Advocates. “They are byproduct of the world around us.”
Planes are like social microcosms: Whatever dynamics exist in the country show up, said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing half the U.S. flight attendant workforce. These days, Americans are bringing their politics and politicized anxieties into increasingly tight spaces.
“I don’t know that we have ever seen tensions like we see today,” said Nelson, “that are really more related to the political environment than an actual security situation or risk.”
In November, at the request of civil rights groups and after input from Nelson’s union, the Department of Transportation began making public more detailed data about civil rights complaints. Days before President Barack Obama left office, department officials updated the Passenger Bill of Rights, reinforcing that removing a passenger for sporting a beard, reading another language, or “appearing” Muslim is illegal. The agency also issued the first new must-follow guidance to airlines regarding discrimination issued since November 2001.
Some say a need for stronger regulation remains. In letters to federal transit officials last year, three organizations – CAIR, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Muslim Advocates – asked the Department of Transportation to mandate anti-bias training for flight crews and expand the events that prompt an official investigation.
Nelson agrees better training is key.
Airlines have always made cultural awareness part of flight crew training, she said. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a spike in removals and transit agency action taken against certain airlines, almost all added training on implicit biases, judgment and distorted assessments of risk. Some provide more than others.
But flight attendants are always trained to keep potential problems on the ground.
“Ideally, that (training) would equip a flight attendant to remove actual security risks,” Nelson said, “and offer a passenger who reports someone for simply speaking Arabic the option of taking another flight.”