Tragedy bred suspicion, some Arab travelers say

But airlines defend practice of profiling

November 24, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The travelers say they recognize it right away -- the suspicious questions, humiliating searches, hostile looks, inexplicably overbooked flights. Their offense, they say: Flying While Arab.

When international airline disasters strike -- particularly involving Middle East travel, as the recent EgyptAir disaster did -- many Arab passengers say that flying anywhere on a U.S. carrier can become a dehumanizing ordeal.

Just last week, an America West flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Phoenix was evacuated on a runway while two Saudi Arabian doctoral students were handcuffed and questioned for about three hours. The men were accused of jiggling the cockpit door and asking questions the flight attendant found suspicious. The students denied the allegations and were not charged, and the airline later apologized.

"At airports, people always jump to conclusions and blame the Arabs," said Kamal Nawash, legal director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which is collecting discrimination complaints against the airlines, with future lawsuits in mind. "We've had people from the left and right telling us, `I was standing in a line of 200 people, and I was the one they searched, going through my bags, garment by garment.' "

The frequency of such accusations is unclear. Arab-American groups say incidents are on the rise, although the U.S. Transportation Department says there has been no increase in official complaints. Nevertheless, enough questions have been raised that the department is preparing to launch an investigation into the matter.

U.S. airlines and federal regulators deny any institutional prejudice. In particular, they praise their policy of passenger profiling -- the singling out of individual travelers for additional security screening based on personal information -- as a shining success in the fight against airline terrorism.

Airlines note that over the past three years, major U.S. carriers have computerized their profiling systems to diminish the potential for bias and human error, and they argue that complaints are rare. The Justice Department's civil rights division has approved the new computerized system, which includes no questions specifically geared toward race, religion, ethnicity or national heritage.

"In almost all cases, that extra security is transparent -- passengers don't even know they've been selected," said David A. Fuscus, a spokesman for Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents U.S. airlines. Generally, he said, this means that luggage is examined behind the scenes.

Profiling protects the public, Fuscus said, and helps explain the absence of terrorism on U.S. airlines in recent years. "What's the reason?" he asked. "The reason is a good security system."

Just as police departments around the country have been accused of singling out African-American drivers for special scrutiny -- what critics call "Driving While Black" -- so have airlines been accused of targeting Arabs. Civil rights groups and lawyers familiar with the screening process, contend that the questions plugged into those airport computers -- kept secret by the federal government for security purposes -- select for Arabs, in part by closely examining passengers with Middle East destinations.

`Just vacationers'

"My poor family has nothing to do with events in the Middle East -- they were just vacationers," complained Theresa Walker-Ali, who said her Arab relatives were harassed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport this month as they tried to board a Tower Air flight to Tel Aviv.

"There were 150 people on this plane, and we watched for an hour and a half and the only people pulled aside for questioning were the Arab families," said Walker-Ali, a corporate executive who lives in Butler, N.J.

"They were asking my brother-in-law, `Who were you with? Who packed your luggage? Where did you get those electronics? Why were you in Egypt? Who did you go with?' My sister-in-law was crying hysterically."

Walker-Ali said the family's carry-on possessions were removed -- including her brother-in-law's ulcer medication -- and kept out of reach until the plane boarded that evening. Her three relatives were questioned heatedly in a room within full view of the airport deli and were followed by security guards even into the bathroom, she said. Finally, after a three-hour wait, the Arab family was allowed on the plane.

Tower Air representatives said they had no record of this case because the passengers were not taken off the flight. The airline said its passenger checks are performed according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, and suggested that the destination of the flight might have resulted in aggressive questioning.

"Decisions to question are based on assessments by security personnel," the airline said through a spokesman. "Certain countries, including Israel, are classified by the FAA as high-risk."

`Well worth it'

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