Yesterday at Reagan National Airport, Atif Irfan, a tax attorney, and his brother Kashif Irfan, an anesthesiologist, were forcibly removed from an AirTran flight to Orlando, along with their wives, children, and sister, plus a friend who happened to be on the same plane and was seen talking to them. The Irfan brothers' offense: discussing, on the way to their seats, which was the safest part of the plane. A passenger who perceived the conversation as threatening reported the Irfans to a flight attendant, and soon the pilot was ordering their removal from the flight, with the help of air marshals. Although FBI agents who interviewed the Irfans at the airport quickly determined that they posed no threat, the airline still refused to rebook them so they could continue their interrupted vacation. Now they want an apology, but AirTran seems to prefer a lawsuit. It claims it "complied with all TSA, law enforcement and Homeland Security directives and had no discretion in the matter." The TSA apparently disagrees. CNN reports that an agency spokesman "said it was the airline's decision to remove the family."
Would the decision have been the same if the Irfans and their friend had Anglo-Saxon names and fairer complexions? Would the suspicious passenger have been suspicious in the first place? The Irfans' friend, an attorney who works for the Library of Congress, thinks not. "I guess it's just a situation of guilt by association," he told CNN. "They see one Muslim talking to another Muslim, and they automatically assume something wrong is going on."
Update: As cunnivore notes, AirTran has now apologized to the ejected passengers, refunded their airfares, and promised to reimburse them for the cost of switching to other carriers. The airline's statement says:
We apologize to all of the passengers—to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight. Nobody on Flight 175 reached their destination on time on New Year's Day, and we regret it.
Even so, AirTran is not prepared to say it made a mistake. A.P. reports that "the airline said the incident on the flight was a misunderstanding, but the steps taken were necessary."