AirTran apologizes to Muslims

9 passengers forced off Fla. flight over misunderstanding

January 03, 2009|By Cynthia Dizikes | Cynthia Dizikes,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -

After helping to deliver the District of Columbia's first baby of the year, Dr. Kashif Irfan boarded a flight to Orlando, Fla., with his wife, his three small children and other relatives. But instead of taking off as scheduled, Irfan and his family were ordered off the plane and detained in the airport, surrounded by armed guards.

"I was thinking, 'What could we have possibly done to arouse a degree of suspicion this high?' " said Irfan, a U.S. citizen born in Detroit.

The airline's handling of the Irfan family, after comments one of them made about airline safety aroused suspicions of two teenage pasengers, caused an uproar among Muslim Americans yesterday and prompted AirTran Airways to formally apologize to the family and to make amends that the airline had refused a day earlier.

The airline said in a statement yesterday that it refunded the nine passengers' air fare and had agreed to reimburse them for replacement tickets they bought on US Airways after AirTran refused to fly them Thursday. AirTran also offered to fly the passengers back to Washington free of charge.

"We apologize to all the passengers - to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight," the statement said.

The airline called the incident a "misunderstanding" but added that the steps that were taken were necessary to ensure security and safety.

The Irfan family was boarding the plane Thursday when Irfan's wife made a comment about where the safest spot on a plane might be, according to Irfan's brother, Atif Irfan, 29.

"It was a very lighthearted conversation about the safest spot of the plane," he said. "But, I guess, these two teenage girls had gleaned from our conversation that we were going to try and take over the plane."

That conversation led to the eight family members and their friend to be escorted off the plane and questioned by FBI agents. Federal officials also ordered the rest of the passengers from the plane, did a security sweep of the aircraft, and then re-screened them before allowing the flight to depart about two hours behind schedule.

The Irfan brothers said yesterday that they felt that their group had been profiled based on their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore head scarves.

The Transportation Security Administration said that proper protocol had been followed.

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