Pair accuse Alaska Airlines of kicking them off flight for texting and talking in Arabic.
Two Sudan-born American men claim in a lawsuit that Seattle-based Alaska Airlines removed and barred them from a recent flight to appease other passengers’ racist and xenophobic fears.
They are suing the airline, alleging discrimination.
The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in the Western District of Washington, alleges that Alaska Airlines humiliated and denied Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin their rights as passengers by “exploiting the discredited Islamophobic, racist, and xenophobic claim” of another person on the flight.
According to the complaint, Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin, who are black and Muslim, were sitting in first class as the Seattle to San Francisco plane prepared for takeoff.
A passenger sitting next to Dirar in first class saw him texting in Arabic. The passenger, who didn’t speak or read Arabic, was alarmed by the messages and complained to a flight attendant before exiting the plane.
Lawyers allege that airline employees then engaged in “security theater” by removing Dirar and Elamin from the plane.
An Alaska Airlines manager who spoke Arabic read Dirar’s texts and found them “innocuous.” However, the airline still called FBI and Port of Seattle police officers to the scene.
“Alaska Airlines could have in that moment chosen to not listen to a passenger’s complaint, but they did,” said Katie Walker, a spokesperson for the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is representing Dirar and Elamin.
The suit says the men, both of whom are US citizens, were barred from flying together on the Alaska flights they had already booked, forcing them to board different Alaska flights and arrive hours late to their destinations.
They were also forced to go through airport screening again, with Elamin downgraded to a seat in coach, per the suit.
In a statement, Alaska Airlines said it could not share details on the incident because the case is pending litigation.
“Alaska Airlines strictly prohibits unlawful discrimination. We take such complaints very seriously,” the company said in a statement Tuesday. “Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe — every day.”
Advocates said the incident reflects a pattern of xenophobia and Islamophobia that Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers experience while flying.
“Flying While Muslim has been for far-too-long a very real phenomenon,” CAIR-WA Executive Director Imraan Siddiqi said in a statement. “This incident with Alaska Airlines is one of the most egregious examples of this happening in recent years.”
According to the suit, Dirar and Elamin were “too humiliated and traumatized” by the incident to enjoy their trip in San Francisco.
“When we traveled that day, we were not treated the same as other people, and it made me feel like I was not equal to other people,” Dirar said in a statement. “I don’t want this to happen again, to anyone, Muslim or not Muslim.”