An attorney said Tuesday that some Muslim religious leaders wearing traditional Arab garb were humiliated and embarrassed when they were wrongly kicked off two commercial flights as they sought to travel to a national conference.
Imams in Memphis, Tenn., and New York were headed to the Charlotte conference when they were asked to leave the planes Friday. The imams had already passed through security at the airports before being stopped by airline personnel.
Mo Idlibi, a North Carolina attorney for the imams, said he was considering a lawsuit against the two airlines. He noted that the imams were dressed in garb that included headgear.
"They look Muslim. But when has it become a crime to fly while appearing to be Muslim? That's not a legitimate reason for a pilot or an airline to deny a passenger the right to board a plane or remove them from an aircraft," he told The Associated Press.
Federal regulation allows an airline to refuse to transport an individual that it decides is unsafe. The plane's captain has ultimate authority. But the decision cannot be made solely on the basis of person's race, color, national origin, religion, ethnicity, or sex.
In Memphis, Masudur Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul boarded a plane operated by Atlantic Southeast Airlines, which runs a connection flight for Delta Airlines.
According to Idlibi, the aircraft pulled away from the gate, but then the pilot announced the plane was returning to the gate. When it did, the imams were asked to go back to the boarding gate because they were told the pilot was refusing to fly with them, the men told Idlibi.
The men were taken to a lounge and booked on a flight eight hours later with the same airline, then flew on to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
Atlantic Southeast spokesman Jarek Beem said the company was investigating.
"Atlantic Southeast takes all allegations of discrimination very seriously and our internal investigation is ongoing so we can fully understand all the circumstances surrounding Flight 5452," Beem said.
Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said Atlantic Southeast would have to address any questions about the imams. Yet Delta issued a news release saying, "Delta joins ASA in extending its sincere apologies to these customers for the inconvenience."
Idlibi said the pilot overreacted to the appearance of the men he called "respected men in their communities."
Rahman is an adjunct instructor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, while Zaghloul is with the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis.
In the second case, the attorney said, American Airlines refused to let Al Amin Abdul Latif, 61, board a Charlotte-bound plane. His son, Abu Bakr Abdul Latif, 35, was removed by Port Authority of New York police after the aircraft returned to the gate at LaGuardia Airport.
When the men returned to the airport Saturday morning, Latif again was denied a seat and had to drive to Charlotte for the conference. His son ended up flying to Charlotte.
"I felt humiliated," the elder Latif told AP. "I felt disrespected. It made us feel like criminals."
He knew something was up Friday night when an airline agent told him they were having "trouble with his ticket" and they wouldn't let him board the plane. On his airline ticket, his full name was spelled out. But his driver's license only listed the initial for his middle name. When he came back the next day to buy a ticket, the employee handed him a piece of paper saying he was "not allowed to fly on American Airlines."
"My question is, Why? Why am I not allowed to fly on American Airlines?" he said. "I'm a Muslim. Not a terrorist. It's wrong."
Latif and his son had passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.
TSA spokesman Jon Allen in Atlanta said his agency had nothing to do with the incidents.
A telephone message left for American Airlines was not immediately returned Tuesday.
Idlibi said any legal action would seek wider changes.
"We're certainly going to be seeking accountability, and that will include compensation and disciplinary action for the pilot. And then we're also going to call for the pilots to be properly trained on their authority, trained about understanding that you can't discriminate against somebody just based on how they look," he said.