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Advocates Call on Southwest Airlines to Review Practices Amid Profiling Allegations

There have been four publicized incidents involving Southwest removing Arab, Muslim, and South Asian passengers in the past five months.
A Southwest Airlines jet takes off at Midway Airport April 3, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.
A Southwest Airlines jet takes off at Midway Airport April 3, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.Scott Olson / Getty Images

A coalition of 26 Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations have come together to urge Southwest Airlines to comprehensively review its practices after multiple well-publicized incidents of Arab-, Muslim-, and South Asian-American passengers being removed from Southwest Airlines flights or not allowed to board after speaking Arabic, wearing hijab, or switching seats. Although Southwest Airlines insisted that each case involved an issue of passenger safety, the coalition was concerned that passenger safety issues “disproportionately escalate” when Arab-, Muslim-, Sikh-, or South Asian-American passengers are involved.

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi works in his office in Berkeley, Calif., Monday, April 18, 2016.
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi works in his office in Berkeley, Calif., Monday, April 18, 2016. A University of California, Berkeley student who came to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee says he was unfairly removed from a flight at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month because a fellow passenger was alarmed by an innocent conversation he was having in Arabic. Southwest Airlines said in a statement Sunday that the passenger, Makhzoomi, was taken off the April 9, 2016, flight from Los Angeles to Oakland, California, for questioning and the plane took off while that was happening.Haven Daley / AP

“As a national civil rights organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of South Asians and deeply committed to addressing racial profiling practices at the hands of government and the private sector,” Suman Raghunathan, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), said in a statement, “SAALT is deeply troubled by the multiple reports of racial profiling of Arabic speaking passengers on Southwest Airlines over the past several months. We call upon Southwest to answer the public call for accountability and at minimum, issue an apology to the passengers in question and commit to anti-bias training and policies for all their front-line employees to ensure these troubling incidents are not replicated."

Regarding allegations of racial and religious profiling, the coalition suggested clearer procedures and training for airline personnel to de-escalate situation, mandatory training beyond diversity and cultural competency that includes instruction on anti-racism and implicit bias, strong anti-profiling and anti-harassment policies, and more information for passengers who feel harassed, intimidated, or profiled to file complaints and seek recourse.

“Profiling and discrimination undermine public safety, not enhance it, and all airlines should have strong policies in place to respond to passenger complaints that may be motivated by bias,” Christopher Kang, national director of National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, said in a statement. “Especially in this time of escalating anti-Muslim hate, our Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian communities deserve that much.”

Addressing one recent case in which a passenger was removed from a flight after speaking Arabic, Southwest Airlines wrote in a statement, “Safety is our primary focus, and our Employees are trained to make decisions to safeguard the security of our Crews and Customers on every flight. We would not remove a passenger from a flight without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures. Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”

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