A Muslim-American woman who was removed from a plane in San Diego last spring sued Southwest Airlines on Thursday, alleging she was discriminated against because she was wearing an Islamic head covering.
Irum Abbasi, a psychology graduate student at San Jose State University who is a U.S. citizen, filed the lawsuit in federal court in San Diego.
"Suspicions were aroused because of her religion," Abbasi's attorney, James McElroy, said at a news conference. "She would not have been removed from the plane if she had been a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman."
Abbasi, a mother of three, was taken off the San Jose-bound flight in March as it was about to depart after a flight attendant thought she heard her say "it's a go" on her mobile phone.
Abbasi "was horrified, embarrassed, humiliated and confused," the lawsuit stated.
In fact, Abbasi had said "I have to go" because the plane was about to depart, according to the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.
Abbasi was searched and given clearance to reboard the flight within three minutes, but the pilot claimed the crew was uncomfortable flying with her and refused to allow her aboard.
She was given an apology, a voucher and a boarding pass for the next San Jose flight. As a result, she missed a critical research experiment that she needed to be able to complete for her graduate studies, the lawsuit said.
Chris Mainz, spokesman for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co., said the airline apologized to Abbasi for her inconvenience and her concerns were addressed "in good faith."
"In this case, our employees raised a safety concern based on the customer's behavior, and we had a duty to thoroughly address those concerns before clearing the customer to travel," Mainz said in an emailed statement.
"We have a vast, diverse workforce, and we celebrate diversity among our employees and our customers. We do not discriminate against anyone for any reason, and we've been recognized as a leader for our diversity and care for all of our customers throughout our 40 years of service."
Southwest has received widespread notoriety for removing passengers.
Last week, the airline ejected a female couple who kissed during a flight, and earlier this year it removed Green Day singer Billy Joe Armstrong and a University of New Mexico football player for wearing pants that were too baggy. A couple of years ago, a woman was taken off a San Diego flight for wearing clothing deemed too revealing.
"It's time for the company to take responsibility for the weak policies and standards that allow for employee biases to affect treatment of passengers," McElroy said.