Two Muslim passengers onboard an American Airlines flight have said they were racially profiled after the service was cancelled due to “safety and security concerns”.
Abderraoof Alkhawaldeh and Issam Abdallah alleged that cabin crew grounded the plane because they weren’t “comfortable” flying with the two men.
“It was the most horrible, humiliating day of my life,“ said Mr Abdallah, speaking at a press conference hosted by the Council for American-Islamic relations.
“It’s put a lot of stress on me and my family; it’s hard to sleep some nights,” added Mr Alkhawaldeh, breaking down in tears during his statement. “Those who are responsible must be held accountable.”
The two men were travelling separately but recognised each other on their flight from Birmingham, Alabama to Dallas, Texas, and waved at each other across the aircraft.
After several announcements that the flight was delayed due to “maintenance” issues, Mr Abdallah went to the toilet.
When he came back out, a flight attendant appeared to be “eavesdropping” on him.
“When I opened the door after I finished, I was really surprised to find the flight attendant by the door, eavesdropping. It was a big shock, but I went back to my seat.”
Ten minutes later, there was an announcement that the flight was cancelled.
All passengers deplaned – “it was chaos”, said Mr Abdallah – and were told they would be flying three hours later on a 12.40pm service instead.
A man in a suit, who “seemed like a security guy from the airport” approached both men separately, asking each about their respective trips to Alabama.
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Mr Alkhawaldeh and Mr Abdallah headed to Starbucks for a coffee to wait out the delay. But Mr Abdallah claims that airport police were watching their every move.
“You could tell they were following us everywhere,” he said.
Once the pair were seated at their new gate, a man who identified himself as an FBI agent asked Mr Abdallah if he could talk to him in a separate security area, and said his luggage would be rechecked.
According to Mr Abdallah, the agent said cabin crew on the flight had called the police because they “were not comfortable” flying with him and Mr Alkhawaldeh onboard.
When he asked why, Mr Abdallah was told it was because he had flushed the toilet twice during his visit to the restroom.
He was released to catch the flight, but said he felt “like a criminal” when he left the security room to find a strong military presence, dogs and police in attendance.
“I felt they were discriminating against my ethnicity, against my religion – I don’t wish for any human being to go through this bad experience,” he said.
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Mr Alkhawaldeh added: “I’ve been a loyal customer since 1989; I’ve flown more than one million miles with American Airlines.
“To be treated with disrespect and suspicion, to be racially profiled, to be followed by law enforcement officers for hours in front of hundreds of passengers, to be questioned in public, to be singled out to check my luggage again for absolutely no reason – this is absurd, unacceptable and un-American.”
The men were booked on an American Airlines flight operated by regional carrier Mesa Airlines.
American Airlines said in a statement: “American Airlines Flight 5886, operated by Mesa Airlines, from Birmingham to Dallas-Fort Worth on 14 September was cancelled due to concerns raised by a crew member and a passenger.
“American and all of its regional partners have an obligation to take safety and security concerns raised by crew members and passengers seriously. All customers on Flight 5886 were rebooked on the next flight to DFW.
“We’re committed to providing a positive experience to everyone who travels with us. Our team is working with Mesa to review this incident, and we have reached out to Mr Alkhawaldeh and Mr Abdallah to better understand their experience.”