Civil Rights Report 2017: “Flying While Muslim”

“Flying While Muslim”: Discriminatory Airline Removals

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, commercial airlines have increasingly subjected passengers who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim and/or Middle Eastern to profiling and discrimination by either refusing to allow them to board planes or by removing them from flights. In 2016, CAIR received numerous complaints and documented a wave of incidents in which airline personnel arbitrarily singled out and removed passengers who are, or were perceived to be, of Muslim and/or Middle Eastern descent without reasonable causes or explanations.

The Absence of Credible Safety Concerns

Passenger removals continue to occur despite the absence of credible or proportionate security concerns. While airlines maintain the right to refuse to transport any passenger whom the carrier determines to pose a threat to security, air carriers do not, and should not, have unfettered discretion to remove passengers based on their religious, racial, or ethnic background in violation of federal civil rights laws.

The underlying cause for each decision to remove passengers that CAIR has documented appeared to be based on the unsubstantiated fear or possible bigotry of an airline crew member or fellow passenger who felt “uncomfortable” by their presence. Such patterns of discriminatory conduct do not seem to be tied to a specific airline. CAIR documented the following discriminatory removals during 2016:

  • January 18: Four men, including three Muslims and one Sikh, filed a lawsuit against American Airlines after being asked to leave the plane because the crew and captain reported feeling “uneasy about their presence on board” due to their appearance.

  • March 20: A Muslim family with three young children was ejected from a United Airlines flight at Chicago O’Hare International Airport after they requested an additional strap for the youngest child’s booster seat.

  • April 6: A college student was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport after another passenger heard him saying “Inshallah,” a customary Arabic phrase meaning “God willing.”

  • April 15: A Somali Muslim woman was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight at Chicago O’Hare International Airport without adequate explanation.

  • April 15: An African American civil rights leader was singled out for removal from an American Airlines flight at Reagan National Airport after he complained to a flight attendant that several white passengers were harassing him and one stated that, “he did not like ‘those people,’ and that ‘those people’ made him sick.”

  • June 15: A bearded man was kicked off an Alaska Airlines flight after a passenger allegedly complained that he looked “Arabic and scary.”

  • July 26: A Pakistani Muslim couple was removed from a Delta Airlines flight from Paris to Cincinnati after a passenger complained that the husband was sweating, the woman was wearing a headscarf, and the couple used the word “Allah.”

Federal Law and Government Agencies

Air carriers are authorized to refuse transportation to a passenger whom  “the carrier decides is, or might be, inimical to safety.” Moreover, federal aviation regulations designate the captain as “the final authority as to the operation of the aircraft,” and the “In-flight Security Coordinator… to perform duties specified in the aircraft operator’s security program.” Airline crewmembers therefore maintain the responsibility for the overall safety and order of the cabin, which inherently includes policing and law enforcement authority over passengers on the aircraft. 

However, federal law also specifies that air carriers may not “subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or ancestry.” In response to the rise in complaints of racial and religious profiling by airlines, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) issued several strong directives instructing airlines to avoid discrimination against their passengers. Specifically, the DOT advised: “Do not subject persons or their property to inspection, search and/or detention solely because they appear to be Arab, Middle Eastern, Asian, and/or Muslim; or solely because they speak with an accent that may lead you to believe they are Arab, Middle Eastern, Asian, and/or Muslim.”

The Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, which includes the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, is responsible for monitoring compliance with and investigating violations of the DOT’s aviation civil rights regulations. In exercising its enforcement authority, the Office maintains the power to issue consent orders, seek injunctive relief, and impose civil penalties on airlines found to have engaged in unlawful discrimination against individuals. The DOT also issues a monthly consumer report, which tracks the number of discrimination complaints filed against airlines. In recent months, the Air Travel Consumer Report noted a rise in complaints alleging religious, race, and national origin discrimination.

In addition to filing discrimination complaints with the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection Division, aggrieved individuals may file private civil rights lawsuits in federal district courts against violating airlines. Unfortunately, however, ex post facto remedies to airline discrimination are insufficient. Many courts have deemed an airline’s decision proper unless it was “arbitrary and capricious,” but such a high legal threshold necessarily makes it exceedingly difficult for individuals to find adequate recourse for deprivations of their federal rights by airlines. Nevertheless, in determining whether the airline properly exercised its power, courts examine the specific facts and circumstances of the case as known to the airline at the time it rendered its decision. Courts do not consider other facts that are later discovered in hindsight and were unknown to the airline at the time of the decision.

Because captains are designated as the final authority on the aircraft and often must make swift decisions, the ultimate decision to remove a passenger may be based on inaccurate and misleading information from other crewmembers. As such, CAIR believes it is imperative to develop clear standards and policy guidelines for airline employees to follow when making the decision to eject a passenger from a flight for legitimate security concerns. Otherwise, individuals of Muslim and/or Middle Eastern background will continue to face discriminatory treatment by airlines when personal biases and prejudices are ratified through their removal from an aircraft.


Department of Transportation
  • Conduct a thorough and extensive investigation into the prevailing practices and procedures of major U.S. air carriers when determining whether a passenger poses a security threat and should therefore be removed.

  • Publicly announce the findings of the investigation and highlight any patterns or incidents in which air carriers have violated federal anti-discrimination laws.

  • Develop clear policy guidelines and directives that outline objective factors which should be considered when determining that a passenger may be legally removed from a flight.

  • Require U.S. commercial air carriers to undergo regular cultural competency trainings for their employees to ensure that passengers are not subjected to unfair and arbitrary discriminatory treatment in the future.

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