WASHINGTON — A Muslim family removed from an airliner Thursday after passengers became concerned about their conversation say AirTran officials refused to rebook them, even after FBI investigators cleared them of wrongdoing.
Atif Irfan said federal authorities removed eight members of his extended family and a friend after passengers heard them discussing the safest place to sit and misconstrued the nature of the conversation. Irfan, a U.S. citizen and tax attorney, said he was “impressed with the professionalism” of the FBI agents who questioned him, but said he felt mistreated when the airline refused to book the family for a later flight.
Family members said FBI agents tried to work it out with the airline, but to no avail. “The FBI agents actually cleared our names,” said Inayet Sahin, Irfan’s sister-in-law. “They went on our behalf and spoke to the airlines and said, ‘There is no suspicious activity here. They are clear. Please let them get on a flight so they can go on their vacation,’ and they still refused.”
The dispute occurred about 1 p.m. Thursday as AirTran flight 175 was preparing for takeoff from Reagan National Airport outside of Washington, D.C., on a flight destined for Orlando, Florida. Atif Irfan, his brother, their wives, a sister and three children were headed to Orlando to meet with family and attend a religious conference.
“The conversation, as we were walking through the plane trying to find our seats, was just about where the safest place in an airplane is,” Sahin said. “We were (discussing whether it was safest to sit near) the wing, or the engine or the back or the front, but that’s it. We didn’t say anything else that would raise any suspicion.”
Some time later, while the plane was still at the gate, an FBI agent boarded the plane and asked Irfan and his wife to leave the plane. The rest of the family was removed 15 or 20 minutes later, along with a family friend, Abdul Aziz, a Library of Congress attorney and family friend who was coincidentally taking the same flight and had been seen talking to the family.
AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson said the incident began when some passengers reported hearing suspicious remarks by a woman and alerted flight attendants.
Aziz said there is a “very strong possibility” he will pursue a civil rights lawsuit. “I guess it’s just a situation of guilt by association,” Aziz said. “They see one Muslim talking to another Muslim and they automatically assume something wrong is going on.”