Two American Muslim women were escorted off an American Airlines flight at Miami International Airport because a flight attendant felt threatened by their presence. Niala Mohammad and her friend, both of whom work for the US federal government, were greeted by air marshals and Miami-Dade police officers as they were ejected from the flight.
Mohammad, a journalist with government-funded news organisation Voice of America, was travelling to Washington DC with her companion, who did not wish to be identified. After a lengthy delay on the tarmac due to the ground crew forgetting to refuel the plane and adverse weather questions, only passengers who wished to disembark and continue their journey at their own expense were allowed to leave the jet.
"After over five hours aboard the grounded plane, we were only offered one glass of water, a bag of pretzels, and told there would be no more food or beverage," Mohammad wrote on Facebook, detailing the incident. "A flight attendant informed us we were not allowed to purchase in-flight food unless we were in the air and we were denied the right to deplane to get food or use the airport restrooms. Air fuel fumes also began to permeate the cabin space."
A (white) male passenger sitting behind the pair struck up a conversation with Mohammad's friend to discuss an apparent lack of customer care. According to Mohammad, a male flight attendant approached them and informed them they could "get off the plane" if they had a problem.
Mohammad claimed that despite her friend pointing out that she was merely stating the facts, the attendant responded that he could have them both removed "for instigating other passengers".
The multimedia journalist – who was watching a Pakistani drama on her mobile phone – removed her headphones to learn what had taken place.
A female flight attendant approached Mohammad and her friend to ask what had happened and identified her colleague as "Rog as in Roger" from a picture they had taken. They were asked to delete the image, which they did.
After another 10 minutes, an AA customer relations representative identified as Lourdes Broco boarded the plane and asked Mohammad and her friend to follow her. "Waiting for us at the ramp were several armed Air Marshals and Miami-Dade police officers," wrote Mohammad. The white male passenger with whom Mohammad's friend was speaking to was not removed from the flight.
Mohammad claimed that when she asked why they were being thrown off the flight, she was informed that "it was because 'Rog' felt threatened by us". The two women were assigned a seat on the next flight to Washington and were given $200 (£152) credit for future travel with the airline, as well as a $24 food voucher.
"Although we were encouraged to document the incident to AA customer relations, we still experienced insult and embarrassment as two minority Muslim-American women," Mohammad wrote. "For being such a 'threat' to an AA attendant, it's telling that the Miami-Dade police officers joked with us and posed for this picture with the 'pretty harmless' airplane menaces."
According to The Independent, American Airlines spokeswoman Alexis Aran Coello said Mohammad's friend had breached airline policy by taking a picture of the flight attendant "even though he reportedly asked them to stop".
"This was a case of non-compliance. At no moment did discrimination come up, according to the passenger relations representative who was there," Coello said. "She told me they were very calm, very nice, they weren't upset. They didn't say they were being kicked off because they were Muslim. Those words never came out of their mouths. It's only now that she's saying this was an issue."
In a Twitter post on 3 August, Mohammad countered the airline's claim and wrote: "WOW, way to cover yourselves #AmericanAirlines! This issue of being Muslim was actually spoken about openly..."