PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Philadelphia man says he is humiliated and upset after he was briefly stopped from boarding a flight from Chicago when another passenger overheard him speak Arabic, making him uncomfortable.
Pizza shop owner Maher Khalil emigrated from Palestine 15 years ago. He says he had never experienced discrimination before the incident Wednesday at Midway International Airport.
"We came to America to have a better life," Khalil explained on Friday. "Everybody in America is from different countries. I'm one of them. I'm an American citizen."
Khalil said he was chatting with a friend while waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight. When he approached the gate, he said, they were told they couldn't board because another passenger felt uncomfortable.
"We were just chatting, like everybody else," Khalil said in a telephone interview. "I'm like: 'Are you kidding me? Are you serious? Is this a prank or something?'"
Khalil called the police for help, but when they arrived, some passengers assumed it was because the officers were responding to a terrorist threat.
The two men were later allowed to board.
As Khalil walked to his seat at the back of the plane, some were suspicious of a white box he was carrying and asked to see what was inside, he said. To ease the tension, Khalil opened it and shared the baklava he'd bought with a few passengers.
"When we walked onto the airplane, I told my friend to smile so (other passengers) can think there's nothing wrong," Khalil said. "Everybody started giving us that look."
Southwest Airlines Co. said the flight departed 10 minutes late after a disagreement with two customers. The Dallas-based airline says its employees are trained to address "passenger situations" to ensure the safety of flights.
"I swear, I never had that feeling before," Khalil said. "I felt like we're not safe no more in this country. Because I'm Arab, I cannot ride the airplane? The person who complained is the one who should be kicked out, not me."