American Airlines

Muslim men say they were profiled while flying to DFW because toilet was flushed twice

Two Muslim men who alleged that they were subjected to racial and religious profiling while on an American Airlines flight are asking the airline and the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate and hold the responsible parties accountable.

The men also allege that the aircraft was stopped and the passengers were boarded onto other flights because of an overreaction to the way one of the men flushed a toilet twice.

The men complained that they were followed all over the airport, questioned, searched and delayed because they appeared to be Muslim and of Middle Eastern descent.

The men who complained about the incident, Issam Abdallah and Abderraoof Alkhawaldeh, were at a press conference Thursday organized by the Council for American-Islamic Relations.

“I have taken hundreds of flights — and to be treated with such disrespect, suspicion, to be questioned in public and to be singled out and followed around in front of other airport customers — I am really worried as to what my next flying experience will be,” Alkhawaldeh said as he was tearing up.

“I have not had problems before and then out of nowhere, for what?” he wondered. “Because someone questioned. Those who are responsible must be held accountable.”

The two men are requesting that the Department of Transportation conduct an investigation in connection with Saturday’s events that occurred during an American Airlines flight from Birmingham, Alabama, bound for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

“There is no doubt that had it not been for Abdallah and Alkhawaldeh’s Middle Eastern descent and Muslim faith, the act of using the restroom and flushing the toilet twice would not have been viewed as suspicious activity warranting denial of boarding, enhanced screenings, and FBI interrogations,” said Gadeir Abbas, the attorney representing Abdallah and Alkhawaldeh.

This is bolstered by the fact that a female passenger used the restroom prior to Abdallah and she received no repercussions, Abbas said in a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Abbas described both men as leaders in the Dallas-Fort Worth Muslim community who travel often on American Airlines, which is based in Fort Worth.

“If this is an active incident of profiling, that’s a violation of law and it needs to be enforced,” Abbas said. “Profiling is bad for American Airlines and bad for Muslims. If this is particular to a certain flight crew or if it is a broader problem, this needs to be dealt with.”

American Airlines said it is reviewing the incident. Mesa Airlines crew members were operating the flight in question, and Mesa operates flights for American Airlines and United Airlines, according to American Airlines staff.

“American Airlines Flight 5886, operated by Mesa Airlines, from Birmingham to Dallas-Fort Worth on Sept. 14 was canceled due to concerns raised by a crew member and a passenger,” a statement from American Airlines said. “American and all of its regional partners have an obligation to take safety and security concerns raised by crew members and passengers seriously.

“All customers on Flight 5886 were rebooked on the next flight to DFW. We’re committed to providing a positive experience to everyone who travels with us. Our team is working with Mesa to review this incident, and we have reached out to Mr. Alkhawaldeh and Mr. Abdallah to better understand their experience.”

Mesa Airlines also issued a statement which said: “The safety and security of our customers is our top priority, and we are conducting a thorough investigation of this matter.”

Searched, questioned and followed

Abbas said the two men boarded the flight Saturday and a member of the crew announced that the flight would be delayed.

During the delay Abdallah went to use the restroom and saw a flight attendant standing unusually close to the restroom door when he left, Abbas wrote in a letter complaining to the Department of Transportation.

Later, a crew member announced that everyone had to get off the plane. Alkhawaldeh overheard a flight attendant tell one of the passengers that the deplaning was due to security reasons and the passengers would be transferred to other American Airlines flights.

While Alkhawaldeh and Abdallah waited to speak to a gate agent, a plain-clothed man with a badge approached them and then followed them while accompanied by at least six uniformed officers, when they decided to get some coffee, the letter said. Two different uniformed officers monitored them at each area throughout the airport.

Later, the two men returned to their seats and were approached by FBI Agent Eric Salvador, who was accompanied by a uniformed officer. Salvador asked Alkhawaldeh to follow him to a private room and answer some questions, but Alkhawaldeh refused to speak with Salvador.

Salvador then told Alkhawaldeh that the American Airlines crew reported suspicious activity and asked for his birth date and his driver’s license. Alkhawaldeh was escorted to a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint where agents searched through his luggage and then let him go.

Salvador, accompanied by two uniformed officers, also asked to speak with Abdallah and search his luggage at a TSA security checkpoint. Abdallah saw military officers and dogs while his luggage was being scanned, the letter said.

Salvador then took Abdallah to a private room where he demanded his name, occupation, the purpose of his travel to Alabama, and asked to see his identification.

Salvador told Abdallah that American Airlines flight attendants called the police and reported suspicious activity. Salvador said that the flight attendants reported they were uncomfortable flying with Abdallah and Alkhawaldeh, apparently because a flight attendant noticed Abdallah flush the toilet two times while in the airplane restroom, the letter said.

After confirming Abdallah did not pose a threat, he was allowed to leave to catch his rescheduled flight. Upon exiting the private room, TSA agents opened and searched Abdallah’s luggage and shopping bag by hand. When Abdallah finally arrived at his gate, he noticed fellow passengers staring at him as if he was at fault.

“It is apparent that American Airlines illegally profiled our clients,” the letter said. “There was nothing suspicious about what our clients did; what happened occurred only because it was Muslim Arab men who did it.”

Federal law allows U.S. and foreign airlines to refuse to transport a passenger if the airline determines that the passenger is, or might be, a threat to safety or security, the letter said. There are no facts that exist which could support such a finding, the letter said.

Imam Omar Suleiman, said he is a community leader in North Texas who constantly sees discrimination and that is why he attended the press conference.

“This happens often,” Suleiman said. “Most of the time people do not step forward to talk about their experiences. Instead of just addressing this issue in isolation, American Airlines could use this opportunity to create protocols that stops this from happening all the time.”

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Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.