Two men, both of whom are Black and Muslim, are suing Alaska Airlines for alleged racial discrimination and violations of their civil rights, saying they were kicked off a flight in February 2020 over text messages in Arabic.
Abobakkr Dirar and Mohamed Elamin, both American citizens, were heading out on a business trip together from Seattle to San Francisco when they were unjustly removed from their flight, according to their complaint filed against the airline in federal court Tuesday.
A passenger sitting next to Dirar in first class saw him texting in Arabic. The passenger, who didn't speak or read Arabic, was alarmed by the messages and complained to a flight attendant before exiting the plane, according to the lawsuit.
That passenger's concerns led to a chain reaction of "unjustified, unnecessary, and self-serving display of discriminatory security theater," the lawsuit alleged, even after it was clear the text messages were innocuous and neither man posed a threat.
"Alaska Airlines could have in that moment chosen to not listen to a passenger's complaint, but they did," said Katie Walker, a spokesperson for the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which is representing Dirar and Elamin.
In a statement, Alaska Airlines said it could not share details on the incident because the case is pending litigation.
"Alaska Airlines strictly prohibits unlawful discrimination. We take such complaints very seriously," the company said in a statement Tuesday. "Our greatest responsibility is to ensure that our flight operations are safe — every day."
Advocates said the incident reflects a pattern of xenophobia and Islamophobia that Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers experience while flying. In the years since 9/11, some Muslim travelers have reported additional security screenings, racial profiling and invasive religious questioning at airports and on flights.
"Flying While Muslim has been for far-too-long a very real phenomenon," CAIR-WA Executive Director Imraan Siddiqi said in a statement. "This incident with Alaska Airlines is one of the most egregious examples of this happening in recent years."
After receiving the complaint about Dirar's text messages from the passenger, an airline manager pulled both Dirar and Elamin off the plane, according to the lawsuit. No passenger complaint was raised against Elamin, but "he was also racially discriminated against through wrongful removal and exclusion from Flight 304" because he looked and sounded like Dirar, the lawsuit alleged.
The Alaska Airlines manager, who spoke and read Arabic, then reviewed Dirar's phone, finding nothing threatening in his text messaging history.
Despite that confirmation, airline personnel still deplaned everyone else on board for additional security screening, "humiliating them before their fellow Flight 304 passengers," according to the complaint.
The captain of the flight also ordered the first-class lavatory tanks used by Elamin before takeoff to be emptied, and a manager asked a Port of Seattle police officer whether a K-9 unit could sweep the plane, the complaint stated.
Alaska Airlines ultimately didn't allow Dirar and Elamin back on the flight, and booked them on later flights, prohibiting them from flying together, according to the lawsuit.
Dirar and Elamin arrived hours later than their original flight to San Francisco, according to the complaint, and "were too humiliated and traumatized by Defendant's actions to enjoy their trip."
"When we traveled that day, we were not treated the same as other people, and it made me feel like I was not equal to other people," Dirar said in a statement. "I don't want this to happen again, to anyone, Muslim or not Muslim."
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to order Alaska Airlines to provide racial and religious sensitivity training to all employees, as well as punitive damages and compensation for economic damages and emotional distress.