Alaska Airlines says that it has launched an internal investigation into an incident from February, when two Sudanese Americans were removed from a flight headed to San Francisco from Seattle after a nearby passenger became suspicious of one of the men’s Arabic-language texts.
The announcement of the internal probe came more than 10 months after the incident and followed a decision by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which is providing legal representation to the two men, to go public about the matter in a Dec. 18 press release.
“Make no mistake. This is what is known as flying while Muslim to our community,” CAIR Washington executive director Imraan Siddiqi told the media during a Zoom call.
According to an incident report from the Port of Seattle Police Department, Alaska staff had already determined that the text exchange was harmless by the time responding officer Andrew Neisinger reached the scene. Neisinger wrote that an Alaska manager characterized the passenger’s concern over his seatmate’s Arabic texts as a “misunderstanding.”
Nevertheless, the airline decided that all the passengers needed to be deplaned and rescreened.
“The Alaska Airlines manager who told me police were no longer needed said Alaska Airlines was deplaning the passengers to show them that Alaska Airlines was concerned about their security and took this incident seriously,” Neisinger wrote.
Alaska subsequently convinced police to conduct a K-9 search of the baggage compartment and of the aircraft interior.
In addition, according to the report, the plane’s captain ordered that the first-class lavatory tank be emptied because one of the Sudanese Americans had used the lavatory, entering with his coat zipped but exiting with it unzipped.
Ultimately, the plane was reboarded, but the two Sudanese Americans were booked on other flights instead. One was downgraded from first class to coach, said CAIR attorney Brianna Auffray, while the other was rebooked in first class.
“When we travel by plane, we are not really the same as other people and it makes me feel little,” Abobakkr, who was the subject of the complaint about the Arabic texts, told the media this week. “I don’t want this to happen to other people.” Abobakkr asked that his last name not be used to protect his safety.
Abobakkr and the other Sudanese American passenger, Mohamed, said they were embarrassed when Alaska emptied the plane and the other passengers filed by them while they were being questioned by police.
CAIR had planned to file a discrimination suit against Alaska on Monday, but Auffray said the organization decided to hold off after Alaska executives reached out following the Dec. 18 issuance of the press release.
To start with, she said, her clients would like to receive an apology and a refund from Alaska.
The two men also want Alaska to review its policies to make sure such an incident does not happen again.
“What they want to see is systemic change,” Auffray said.
In a statement, Alaska said that it is sorry the two men had such a “distressing experience.”
“Alaska Airlines strictly prohibits unlawful discrimination, and we take such complaints very seriously,” the carrier said. “Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe, and that was our goal on Feb. 17, as it is every day. We have launched an internal investigation of the incident to determine whether there were any missteps on our part, and are in contact with CAIR and the two guests.”