First on CNN: Durbin presses airlines on allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination

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Story highlights

  • Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois sent a letter to Nicholas Calio, the head of Airlines for America
  • The message follows recent examples of alleged discrimination against Muslim and Arab airline passengers

Washington (CNN)Alarmed by recent examples of alleged discrimination against Muslim and Arab airline passengers, a senior Democratic senator pressed the trade association for the major U.S. air carriers to explain what it is doing to prevent future incidents.

"Airlines are entrusted with enormous responsibilities to keep our skies safe while respecting the rights of all passengers," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois in a letter to Nicholas Calio, the head of Airlines for America. "No airline passenger should be subject to discriminatory treatment on the basis of the passenger's religion or ethnicity."
    "Ethnic and religious discrimination strikes at the core of our nation's commitment to equal protection for all," he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by CNN.
    Dick Durbin
    In an email to CNN, Airlines for America managing director for government and regulatory communications Vaughn Jennings wrote, "we look forward to reviewing Sen. Durbin's concerns and will respond to him accordingly."
    Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, cited three examples that "concern" him.
    The first was of Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, an Iraqi refugee who is a student at the University of California at Berkeley. He was removed this month from a Southwest flight from Los Angeles to Oakland after another passenger overheard him speaking in Arabic on his cell phone. The call turned out to be to his uncle in Baghdad whom he was telling about a meeting the political science major had the night before with Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon.
    "I felt oppressed. I felt afraid," Makhzoomi told CNN after the incident.
    The second involves a Muslim family from Illinois that is seeking an apology from United Airlines after being removed from a flight last month. That happened after the mother, who was wearing a headscarf, sought help from a flight attendant securing a child's booster seat.
    United issued a statement saying the family was booked on another flight because the booster seat "did not comply with federal safety regulations."
    The airline holds "our employees to the highest standards of professionalism" and has "zero tolerance for discrimination," the statement said.
    The third incident occurred last year when a United Airlines flight attendant refused to give a Muslim chaplain an unopened can of soda, explaining it could be used as a weapon. The airline later apologized.
    In his letter, Durbin citied U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently saying there has been "an alarming increase in anti-Muslim bigotry."
    Durbin asked the trade association to answer three areas of inquiry related to what type of diversity and nondiscrimination training its member airlines carry out for their employees, what complaint procedures they have in place for people who feel they've been discriminated against and whether the airlines have procedures in place to fully investigate allegations of discrimination.