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Nuns among six passengers kept off American flight

Sister Tessy Pius
Sister Tessy Pius

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Department of Homeland Security

(CNN) -- Four California nuns say they were among six passengers kept off an American Airlines flight in January after crew members complained of a sulfur smell in the cabin and ordered passengers off the plane.

"I felt discriminated very much, because the four of us were taken out from that group, kept us aside, not telling us why we were there," said Sister Tessy Pius, the principal of Mary Immaculate Queen School in Lemoore, California. She and the three other nuns are natives of India and are employed at the school.

The nuns were among the group of passengers held in Dallas, Texas, for additional screening before being allowed to board another flight to Fresno, California, January 2, American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner told CNN.

At the time, airlines were acting under strict security rules because the national threat level was orange, or high. When the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level December 21 from yellow to orange, it warned that al Qaeda may use international flights to launch attacks on the United States.

Several flights were canceled due to security concerns.

The threat level was returned to yellow January 9.

Wagner said attendants on the Fresno flight reported something that "smelled like sulfur," and the pilot ordered all of the passengers to deplane. All but six passengers were quickly cleared to re-board the aircraft, and all of those eventually were cleared and booked on another flight.

Pius said she and her fellow nuns were detained for about six hours and their bags were searched. The only explanation they were given was that "the crew members and the pilot did not feel comfortable taking you inside," she said.

Wagner would not go into detail as to why the four nuns and two other passengers were held for additional screening, calling it "a matter of privacy." He said American's captains have the final say over who flies on their planes.

"American Airlines crews are tasked with maintaining the security of the aircraft, and we always prefer to deal with security matters on the ground prior to takeoff," he said.

CNN producer Brian Todd and Tracy Sabo contributed to this report.

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