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Airlines face post 9/11 racial profiling, discrimination suits

From Phil Hirschkorn and Michael Okwu

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Five passengers who were removed from or prevented from boarding flights last year after the September 11 terror attacks filed suit Tuesday against four major U.S. airlines, accusing them of racial profiling and discrimination.

The separate suits were filed against Continental, American, United and Northwest airlines in federal courts, respectively, in Newark, Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

All of the plaintiffs are of Middle Eastern or Asian descent who had passed through enhanced airport security checks.

As early as September 21, 2001, Transportation Secretary Norman Minetta sent a memorandum to all airlines cautioning them not to discriminate against passengers based on race, religion, national or ethnic origin.

Complaints: Dasrath v. Continental Airlines 
Cureg v. Continental Airlines  
Bayaa v. United Airlines 
Chowdhury v. Northwest Airlines  
Sader v. American Airlines 

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The DOT has since received 31 complaints about such discrimination from people of Middle Eastern, South Asian, Arab or Muslim heritage. The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination group has recorded double that amount of complaints. Two of the five plaintiffs are of Arab descent.

The five plaintiffs, three of whom are seeking compensatory damages, are being represented by either the American Civil Liberties Union or Relman & Associates, a firm specializing in civil rights cases.

Among the plaintiffs is Michael Dasrath, a 32-year-old analyst for Morgan Stanley, who was ejected from a Continental flight from Newark to Tampa last New Year's eve. Dasrath, a U.S. citizen of Indian heritage, told CNN that his incident began with the complaint of a single, white female passenger who had been observing him and two other men in their first class seats.

"She basically said these brown-skinned men are behaving suspiciously," Dasrath said. "The pilot didn't say anything. He just kind of nodded at her and he walked up to the front, looked at me, looked at the two in front of me -- didn't say nothing. Next thing I know one of the gate agents is calling our names," he said.

Edgardo Cureg, 34, a permanent legal resident of Filipino descent, who was removed from the same Continental flight after using his cell phone inside the plane before takeoff, filed a second suit against the airline.

"I will never again feel free to travel in the future," Cureg said at a Manhattan news conference. "My basic right to travel free from discrimination has been violated."

Continental spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said he could not comment on the specific cases but said, "Continental does have a strong policy against discrimination in any form."

The suit against Northwest was filed by Arshad Chowdhury, 25, a U.S. citizen born to Bangladeshi parents, who was removed from a San Francisco to Pittsburgh flight last October 23. Chowdhury was returning to business school at Carnegie Mellon University.

Northwest spokeswoman Mary Beth Schubert said Chowdhury's removal was not based on his ethnic background.

"Mr. Chowdhury was denied boarding because the Northwest pilot received conflicting information about whether or not authorities had cleared him to fly. In the face of this conflicting information, the pilot exercised his discretion to deny boarding," Schubert said.

The airline put Chowdhury on a direct flight that arrived before his originally scheduled flight, Schubert said.

Hassan Sader, 36, a U.S. citizen who lives in Virginia, sued American Airlines for removing him from a Baltimore to Chicago flight last October 31.

"American supports our captains when those decisions are made," said spokesman Todd Burke, who declined to discuss the facts of the claim or the airline's security procedures. But Burke said federal air regulations allow a captain to deny boarding of any passenger who may compromise the safety of the flight.

Aseem Bayaa, 40, a U.S. citizen from California, sued United Airlines for removing him from a Los Angeles to New York flight last December 23.

Airline spokesman Joe Hopkins said, "On our aircraft, the captain is in charge and has to weigh a lot of factors in the overall safety of everybody on the airplane. We would not remove someone based on race, religion, or national origin. It's based on behavior."

Hopkins said the airline would not discuss security matters publicly. "If we are going to be sued, we respond in court through our attorneys," he said.

ACLU staff attorney Reggie Shuford told CNN that the airlines "speak in the abstract about the need for safety and security related to September 11, but nothing that they've done in any of these cases advance the need or interest in safety and security."

Shuford, the lead plaintiffs' lawyer on the coordinated lawsuits, said he hopes the litigation will lead to better training of pilots and flight crew about when there is legitimately a security risk.

"When a passenger -- a fellow passenger -- is given veto power over somebody else's ability to fly based on nothing other than hysteria and discrimmination, then we all need to take pause and determine whether allowing this to continue is really doing anything to advance security or safety," Shuford said.




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