AirTran Should Ground Bigotry


airtranEvery once in a while someone working for a major corporation does something really stupid which captures national media attention. This week that company was AirTran Airways.

On New Year’s Day, Alexandria, Va. resident Atif Irfan, along with his wife, six family members and a family friend were kicked off of an AirTran flight from Washington, D.C.’s National Airport to Orlando, Fla.

Apparently during the flight’s boarding process, Irfan’s sister-in-law, Inayet Sahin, remarked casually to Irfan and his wife that in her view, the safest place on an airplane was over the wings, where the engines are.  Other passengers overheard Sahin’s comment, became alarmed and alerted the AirTran flight crew.

The federal air marshal for the flight then intervened and asked all nine passengers to leave the plane. He proceeded to question Irfan and his family in the jetway corridor connecting the plane to the terminal. Then the remaining 95 fellow passengers were ordered off the plane by the TSA, passing by the Irfan party in the jetway where they waited with the air marshal. Eventually, the FBI was called in to question Irfan, his family and their friend.

Irfan’ s brother, Kashif Irfan, told the Washington Post this afternoon that he believed that, “they were profiled at least in part because of their appearance. He said three of the six adults in the party are of Pakistani descent, two are of Turkish descent and one is African American. He also said they have a traditionally Muslim appearance, with the men wearing beards and the women in head scarves.”

Tonight, All Things Considered host Robert Siegel spoke with Irfran. “It was pretty, you know, a benign comment,” Irfan said. “We didn’t use any of those buzzwords like bomb or anything like that. … Obviously, people that heard this gleaned something very different from it — that we were about to attack.”

He added: “People a lot of time, I think, hear what they want to hear.”

NPR also reported that according to Irfan, after the FBI had determined that the nine posed no threat, the agents asked AirTran to let Irfran, his family and their friend go on the next flight to Orlando, but AirTran refused, despite the FBI’s assurances.

Apparently the Irfan family was guilty of something AirTran Airways can’t abide: flying while Muslim.

To their everlasting credit, US Airways flew the family to Orlando later Thursday night.

This morning, the AirTran public relations team had to clean up the mess and unfortunately, in my view, both their statement this morning and apology this afternoon left a lot to be desired.

In their first statement, AirTran lashed out at the Irfan family, who was understandably humiliated by the experience. Then in their subsequent apology, the airline seemed to be more concerned with the 2 hour delay experienced by the 95 passengers who were allowed to fly on to Orlando on Thursday than they were dispelling the notion that their airline is bigoted against Muslims. 

AirTran described the whole incident as a “misunderstanding.” Please. Could you sound more like a corporate talking head?

Let me be very clear: I understand that airline security in the post 9-11 world is a serious matter. But I find it hard to believe that the Irfans would have been escorted off of the plane had the men not been wearing beards and the women headscarves. I also find it difficult to understand why AirTran refused to let the Irfans board a later flight to Orlando.

According to Mr. Ifran’s account to NPR, the FBI had cleared the party for travel and personally intervened with AirTran, but the airline refused to rebook the family. Yet according to AirTran’s first statement on the matter, their gate agents were not aware of the FBI clearance when they refused to rebook the family.

O.K., let’s say AirTran is right and they didn’t know the FBI had cleared the family to fly. Why wouldn’t they immediately ask the FBI and TSA agents to come to the ticket counter where the Irfans were assembled? If they didn’t, why didn’t they?

The TSA also issued a statement on the matter. The wording is similar to the wording of the AirTran apology and also sounds even less sincere. The TSA statement indicated that the AirTran pilot had the discretion to act on the suspicions of the other passengers. So apparently our government will allow a handful of ignorant anti-Muslim bigots to boot innocent passengers off a flight.

Oh, and by the way, the TSA doesn’t call the matter a “misunderstanding” but instead deems the event an “incident”.

And finally, the New York Times reported tonight that the Irfans have contacted  the Council on American-Islamic Relations to discuss the behavior of AirTran and government officials. According to the Times, the organization is working with the family and AirTran to resolve the matter.

“This was handled badly by AirTran — they were quite belligerent in the beginning,” the council’s Ibrahim Hooper  told the Times  in a telephone interview. “But as they saw the facts come out, they have become more conciliatory.”

One can only hope.

It seems to me that the PR team at AirTran could have put their customer service executive on a YouTube video and personally delivered an apology more heartfelt in tone. In addition, they should have explicitly denied any anti-Muslim bias and they should have contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations for assistance first. (Ideally, they would already have a relationship with the council, which is the country’s leading Muslim advocacy group.) Finally, they should have explicitly apologized for not putting the Irfans on the subsequent flight to Orlando following the FBI clearance.

After all of this, I will think twice about flying AirTran again, whose customers are guilty until proven “incident”.

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