Two Black Muslim men say they were kicked off an Alaska Airlines flight in 2020 after they were talking and one was seen texting in Arabic and are suing the airline, alleging discrimination.
The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in the Western District of Washington, alleges that Alaska Airlines humiliated and denied Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin their rights as passengers by “exploiting the discredited Islamophobic, racist, and xenophobic claim” of another person on the flight.
According to the complaint, the plaintiffs, described as Sudan-born American citizens who predominantly speak Arabic and some English, were sitting in first-class seats on a flight from Seattle to San Francisco in February 2020 when another passenger became upset after seeing one of them text in Arabic. The text conversation was described as friendly banter between one of the men and another person who was not on board at that time.
Lawyers allege that airline employees then engaged in “security theater” by removing the man who was texting and the man with whom he was speaking in Arabic, from the plane. The suit says the men were barred from flying together on the Alaska flights they had already booked, forcing them to board different Alaska flights and arrive hours late to their destinations.
A spokesperson for Alaska Airlines said that the company would not comment on the pending litigation but that it prohibits unlawful discrimination.
“We take such complaints very seriously,” the airline said in a statement. “Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe — every day.”
Luis Segura, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is representing the men, told NBC News that an Arabic-speaking manager at the airline reviewed the text messages and deemed them nonthreatening.
The suit alleges that after Alaska Airline personnel informed law enforcement that the incident was a misunderstanding and that there was no threat to passengers, the airline “nevertheless intended to request and conduct unnecessary measures.”
“The way that I see it is that these two passengers were used as scapegoats,” Segura said.
Segura said the incident has haunted his clients. He said that they have not traveled together by plane in the two years since, and that they now turn off their phones before other passengers when flying. He said his clients are just two of the many Muslim Americans who have anxiety over air travel in the wake of 9/11.
“They take long drives instead of flying,” he said. “You can hear in their voices now when you speak to them that it was traumatic for them. What they want is to be heard.”
Dirar and Elamin are seeking unspecified monetary damages and asking a court to require the airline to provide racial and religious sensitivity training to Alaska Airline employees.