Muslim pilot reveals shock at being ordered off flight

Arifa Akbar
Tuesday 22 August 2006 00:00

A British Muslim airline pilot yesterday described the "humiliating" moment when he was hauled off a transatlantic flight just before take-off.

Amar Ashraf, 28, who was born in Wrexham, North Wales, said he felt " demoralised and humiliated" after being told to leave the flight from Manchester to Newark by a stewardess, and then being questioned by armed police. He believes his removal was down to having a "Muslim-sounding name".

Mr Ashraf, 28, a British Pakistani who was returning to his job as a pilot for one of Continental's partner airlines in the US, will lodge a formal complaint with Continental Airlines, with whom he was travelling, as well as with the US authorities.

His complaint follows growing concern among British Muslims over incidents in which Asian people have been removed from flights, as well as anger over the "passenger mutiny" in which two men were ordered off a plane bound for Manchester. Passengers became concerned by the two, who were said to be speaking Arabic and looked of Asian or Middle Eastern appearance.

Mr Ashraf said: "I was a standby passenger and I'd been told I could travel at 9am that morning. I'd gone through the same stringent security as every other passenger. I was patted down twice and my hand luggage was checked."

He added: "I'd got my boarding pass and got on the plane on business class. The aircraft's doors had closed and it got pushed back from the gates. Then we sat away from the gates for an hour. I must have fallen asleep because I was woken up by a Continental employee who wanted to have a word with me.

"I got out of my seat and noticed the aircraft door was open and the stairs had been moved back to the door. The stewardess told me there were no standby employees allowed to fly that day, but I was sure there were other standby passengers on board the plane. I was demoralised and I had to walk down the stairs, which was really humiliating."

He was then approached by two armed police officers who interrogated him. Mr Ashraf said the officers asked him if he knew why the US government wanted him off the flight. He was forced to go back to his family home in Wales and paid £800 for an alternative Virgin flight two days later.

He is convinced that his racial profile prevented him from flying on 10 August, the first day of the heightened security alert at British airports.

"I guess I just meet the profile. They told me they weren't taking any passengers on standby but I think it was racial profiling. I was the only person asked to get off and can't believe there weren't others on standby tickets. I think as a Muslim I was an easy target. I understand the reason for the delays but I feel this was discrimination," he said.

The airline he works for is a partner airline of Continental, which allows him access to standby flights. In a statement, Continental Airlines said it could not comment on a specific case. US Homeland Security was unable to trace the incident.

Since 11 September 2001, every British flight bound for the US provides a "manifest" list in which the name of all passengers travelling on a plane is provided to US security 15 minutes after take-off. A source said Mr Ashraf's name was not on the list of passengers leaving for Newark that day.

Meanwhile, the two Muslim men who were removed from the flight in Malaga were still "badly shaken" following the experience on Wednesday, a source said.

Asian passengers are increasingly targeted as climate of fear takes hold

Amar Ashraf's recent eviction from a transatlantic flight is the latest in a series of aviation security scares involving Muslims and travellers of Asian appearance.

Last Wednesday, some passengers refused to board a Manchester-bound flight from Malaga because they thought two men of Middle-Eastern appearance were behaving suspiciously.

Passengers said the men kept looking at their watches, and were wearing heavy clothing. They were ordered off the plane and questioned by police.

The incident was condemned by Muslim leaders and some security experts, who warned that judging people by their appearance would be counter productive. It added weight to comments by Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei, who said passenger profiling would create a new crime of "flying while Asian".

Another example occurred last Thursday, when Azar Iqbal, from Manchester, travelled to Atlanta with his family on Delta airlines, only to be separated from his wife and children, held for questioning by US immigration officials, and deported to the UK.

A website used by commercial airline pilots has highlighted an incident where two British women on a flight from Spain to the UK complained about flying with a bearded Muslim, even though the man had been security checked twice.

Last week, an airport terminal at Tri-state airport in West Virginia was evacuated and a Pakistani woman was questioned by the FBI after security checks wrongly identified explosive liquids in her hand luggage.

Dr Ahmed Farooq, a Muslim radiologist from Winnipeg, Canada, was escorted off a United Airlines flight in Denver last week after reciting prayers that were regarded as suspicious by passengers. He said the incident was tantamount to "institutionalised discrimination".

In June, five Russian Muslims, including three veiled women and two men, flying home from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh were taken off the plane after the captain said he was alarmed that the women were wearing the hijab. The passengers flew to Russia the following day, although the women were asked not to wear the hijab.

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