WASHINGTON -- The first legal challenge to alleged bias against Arab-Americans since the Mideast war began is spreading rapidly, getting Pan American World Airways into deeper trouble.
Pan Am, already being hauled into court and before a city human rights agency in New York City for denying a ticket to an Iraqi national, is facing the prospect of additional lawsuits elsewhere in the country in coming days, legal sources said yesterday.
"It wouldn't hurt to have Pan Am know that it will have other lawsuits in other places," according to one civil rights lawyer, who asked not to be identified.
The airline has a policy, disclosed by reservation agents last month and confirmed recently by Pan Am's lawyers, that it will not carry as a passenger anyone traveling on an Iraqi passport. But the Iraqi national, now living permanently in this country, who sued Pan Am last week has indicated that he was refused a ticket when he merely disclosed his country of birth. He was not asked whether he would travel on an Iraqi passport, thus making it appear that the policy in practice may reach all persons of Iraqi descent.
A passport is required only for international flights, but early statements by agents, in fact, said that the policy would apply as fully to domestic as to international flights.
Whether the domestic denial of tickets is continuing is now unclear. Reacting to the growing controversy, Pan Am has begun to refuse to comment any further on it, according to airline spokeswoman Elizabeth Hlinko.
The airline's lawyers over the weekend sent a one-paragraph statement to the New York City Human Rights Commission saying that a "review of security procedures" had led to a decision "to decline acceptance of passengers carrying passports issued by Iraq." It cited "Iraqi threats to engage in terrorism worldwide."
The lawsuit against Pan Am was filed in federal court last Thursday,
by Salam Salman, 38, an architect in New York City. Born in Iraq, he first entered this country nearly seven years ago as a political refugee from that country. Federal law permits alien refugees fleeing from foreign persecution to gain entry to the United States.
His father had been executed by the government in Iraq in 1963. Mr. Salman left the country in 1970, and has become an active public opponent of the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
When he heard about Pan Am's policy on Iraqi travelers, Mr. Salman, according to his lawyers, decided to test it. Last Wednesday, he telephoned Pan Am's reservation system and asked to buy tickets to fly
with his family to Prague, Czechoslovakia. His wife is from Czechoslovakia. His request was refused, with the agent citing the airline's new policy.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Salman claims that he is a victim of ethnic and national origin discrimination under federal civil rights law, that he has been denied equal access to public travel, and that his rights under New York State civil rights law have been violated.
New York City's Commission on Human Rights, which enforces a separate city ordinance against civil rights violations, has ordered Pan Am's president, Thomas G. Plaskett, to meet Thursday morning with agency officials.