Muslim family taken off internal US flight

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The Independent US

An airline apologized yesterday to nine Muslims kicked off a New Year's Day flight to Florida after other passengers reported hearing a suspicious remark about airplane security.

One of the passengers on the AirTran flight said the confusion started at Reagan National Airport just outside Washington, DC, when he talked about the safest place to sit on an airplane.

Orlando, Florida-based AirTran said in a statement that it refunded the passengers' air fare and planned to reimburse them for replacement tickets they bought on US Airways. AirTran also offered to take the passengers back to Washington free of charge.

"We apologize to all of the passengers — to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight," the statement said. "Nobody on Flight 175 reached their destination on time on New Year's Day, and we regret it."

The airline said the incident on the flight from Reagan National Airport to Orlando was a misunderstanding, but the steps taken were necessary.

A US Muslim advocacy group, meanwhile, filed a complaint Friday with the U.S. Department of Transportation. "It is incumbent on any airline to ensure that members of the traveling public are not singled out or mistreated based on their perceived race, religion or national origin" the Council for American-Islamic Relations said.

One of the Muslim passengers, Atif Irfan, said the family probably would not fly home with AirTran because members had already booked tickets on another airline, but appreciated the apology.

"It's definitely nice to hear," he said.

Irfan said when he boarded the flight Thursday, he mentioned something to his wife and sister-in-law about having to sit in the back. His sister-in-law replied that she believed the back of the airplane was the safest, but Irfan believed it was better to be by the wings.

"She said, 'Yes, I guess it makes sense not to be close to the engine in case something happens," Irfan recalled. "It was a very benign conversation."

Shortly after taking their seats, members of the group were approached by federal air marshals and taken off the plane, Irfan said. They stood in the jet bridge connected to the airport and answered questions while other passengers exited and glared at them.

Irfan said he thought he and the others were profiled because of their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore headscarves, traditional Muslim attire.

"My wife and I are generally very careful about what we say when we step on the plane," he said, adding that they have received suspicious looks in the past. "We're used to this sort of thing — but obviously not to this extent."

Irfan, 29, is a lawyer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He was traveling to a religious retreat in Florida with his wife, along with his brother and his family, including three children, ages 7, 4 and 2. They were joined by his brother's sister-in-law and a family friend.

Federal officials ordered the rest of the passengers from the plane and re-screened them before allowing the flight to depart about two hours behind schedule. The family and friend eventually made it to their destination on a US Airways flight.