Two Muslim men who say they were kicked off an airplane in May after the pilot objected to their presence are suing Delta Air Lines Inc. and a regional carrier that operated the Delta Connection flight from Memphis to Charlotte, North Carolina.
According to a suit filed Monday in federal court in Memphis, Masudur Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul were traveling to Charlotte to attend a conference on anti-Muslim discrimination at the time.
Rahman, who is an adjunct instructor of Arabic at the University of Memphis, has said he was dressed in traditional Indian clothing. Zaghloul, who is a religious leader with the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis, was dressed in Arab garb that included traditional headgear.
The two passed through regular security screening and were waiting at the gate to board when they were pulled out of line and subjected to a second security check, according to the suit. They were questioned about their trip and their luggage and belongings were searched before the men were cleared and allowed to board.
Shortly after the plane pulled away from the gate, the pilot announced the aircraft was returning to the terminal. Once there, according to the suit, the men were pulled off the plane, asked more questions and searched again, this time with a "comprehensive body pat down."
Although they were again cleared to board, the pilot refused to allow them back on the plane, the suit claimed. The plane began to depart without the men when an unnamed airline official called it back and it returned to the gate for a second time.
The suit claims the official then boarded the plane and spoke with the pilot, who said he would not allow Rahman and Zaghloul on the plane because their presence could make other passengers uncomfortable.
According to the suit, the official told passengers that anyone who was apprehensive about the presence of the two men could take a different plane and would be given a generous voucher. There were no takers. The pilot still refused to allow the men to board and they were booked on a later flight, the suit said.
Delta and Atlantic Southeast Airlines Inc., which is owned by SkyWest Inc., issued a statement Monday that read: "Atlantic Southeast and Delta oppose discrimination in any form from any source, and our employees act at all times in the best interest of passenger safety and security. We cannot comment further on pending litigation."
Both airlines are based in Atlanta.
Federal regulation allows an airline to refuse to transport an individual who it decides is unsafe. The plane's captain has ultimate authority. But the decision cannot be made solely on the basis of person's race, color, national origin, religion, ethnicity, or sex.
"Defendants excluded Mr. Rahman and Mr. Zaghloul because of the way they looked," the suit claims. "They had beards, wore traditional Arabic clothing, and were visibly foreign. Defendants unlawfully relied upon these characteristics to conclude that Mr. Rahman and Mr. Zaghloul were security threats, disallowing them from utilizing their purchased tickets."
The suit said the two were traveling to a conference on "'Islamophobia,' and how Muslims religious leaders could help address this issue."
The suit seeks unspecified compensation for the men's losses and injuries as well as punitive damages.