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Airlines, passengers confront racial profiling

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Arab-American complaints against racial profiling on commercial carriers have increased since the September 11 hijacking attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an anti-discrimination group said.

According to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), passengers who appear to be Muslim or Middle Eastern have been removed from planes on several occasions.

The atmosphere hearkens back to the pre-civil rights era, said Joshua Salaam, civil rights coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has received more than two dozen reports of airline-related racial profiling, mostly targeting males.

Vahid Zohrehvandi, a Dallas software developer on his way home from Seattle, said he was reading his paper aboard an American Airlines plane when an airline employee approached him with a passenger manifest and told him to grab his belongings and get off the plane.

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Zohrehvandi says he was told: "The pilot does not feel comfortable flying."

"Is there something I did? Some misbehavior? Anything that aroused suspicion?" Zohrehvandi says he asked.

"'The pilot does not like how you look,'" came the response.

The Iranian-born U.S. citizen says three airport police officers then questioned him for more than an hour on his workplace, his marriage status, his religion, whether he was Muslim, how many children he has, his address, his phone number. "They asked me three different times where I live, three different times where I work," said Zohrehvandi.

"They were treating me like a suspect," he said. "I felt like I was in custody."

Zohrehvandi said a little investigation beforehand could have eliminated such questioning. "They know I'm an American Airlines frequent flyer. My ticket was done by my corporate travel agency. They could have done many things before they put me through what they put me through."

Afterwards, Zohrehvandi was allowed to board the next flight to Dallas.

And when the plane landed, a flight attendant approached him, saying she was sorry about what happened. When he asked her how she knew, she said the pilot had been asked prior to the flight whether the crew felt comfortable flying with Zohrehvandi on the plane.

The same thing happened to San Antonio businessman Ashraf Khan, who was carrying a first class Delta Air Lines ticket to Karachi, Pakistan via Dallas, San Francisco, and Singapore.

Khan was headed to Pakistan to attend his brother's wedding. He says he was told to get off the plane because the crew did not feel safe flying with him.

"Can you give me a reason?" Khan says he asked.

"This is my final decision," came the pilot's reply, Khan said.

After getting off the plane, Khan wonders why the pilot then let him get back on the plane to pick up his backpack and go back into the terminal, if he was considered a threat.

"I was so embarrassed," he said. He never did make his brother's wedding.

Neither Khan nor Zohrehvandi say they have received apologies, and they are planning to take legal action.

Airlines denounce discrimination

Delta spokeswoman Alesia Watson said, "Obviously protecting passengers and their safety are our number one priority. But discrimination is absolutely not tolerated at Delta, with respect to passengers or staff. It is illegal and wrong."

American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Rader says she has not received an official report of racial profiling, but has heard of incidences anecdotally.

On the day after the terrorist attacks, American Airlines Chairman and CEO Don Carty urged employees not to direct anger and hatred against Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern coworkers and customers because of stereotypes.

The Department of Transportation has sent a similar message to the nation's 11 major airlines and four aviation associations. It urged them "not to target or otherwise discriminate against passengers based on their race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion, or based on passengers' names or modes of dress."

Such actions are not only wrong, but illegal under various federal statutes, wrote Norman Strickman, assistant director for Aviation Consumer Protection.

The expulsion of three passengers of Middle Eastern descent from a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City prompted Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to threaten to sue.

Northwest Airlines has since apologized for the "inconvenience" and said its actions were not discriminatory.

Citing security concerns, airlines are declining to discuss screening procedures and the decisions surrounding them.

Pilots carry wide-ranging authority when it comes to safety onboard the plane, said Rader, the American Airlines spokeswoman. "They're sitting at the front of a $50-60 million, sometimes $200 million plane, with a lot of lives on board. These days they are working with the FBI and a lot of security procedures. Ordinarily, we will not have people removed from a flight unless they are deemed a safety threat," she said.

"The pilot is entirely within his rights in most instances to look around and make a decision on safety. But we certainly don't have a policy of telling people that it's okay to discriminate against anybody," said Rader.

American Airlines had two flights that were hijacked the morning of September 11: one of them with 92 people onboard crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center; another, with 64 people onboard, crashed into the Pentagon.

The two other flights that were hijacked belonged to United Airlines.

Passengers urged to cooperate

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says passengers who are asked to get off a plane ought to be calm, be as cooperative as possible, find out the reasons and the names of the people involved, whether they are fellow passengers, security personnel or the pilots.

Rader, the American Airlines spokeswoman, says passengers at this point in time do not have a lot of options other than to cooperate. She suggested finding the airport's conflict or complaint resolution official.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights has set up a second hotline (1-866-768-7227) to handle claims of discrimination, as well as harassment and hate crimes.

During a recent 12-hour period, the volume of calls peaked at approximately 70 telephone calls per hour.


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