Two Islamic religious leaders from Tennessee claim a Delta pilot prevented them from flying after they were cleared to board.

Story highlights

Two imams say they were prevented from flying in May

After they were cleared to board, they claim a Delta pilot barred them

The men were headed to a conference on anti-Muslim bigotry, the suit says

Washington CNN  — 

Two Islamic religious leaders from Tennessee filed a lawsuit against two airlines Monday, claiming they were discriminated against and not allowed to fly on a plane in May because of the way they looked.

Masudur Rahman and Mohamed Zaghloul, both imams, request a jury trial in the suit, filed in federal court against Delta Air Lines and Atlantic Southeast Airlines.

In the suit, the two said they arrived at the Memphis, Tennesseee, International Airport on May 6, wearing traditional Muslim attire, including religious garb and headgear. The two were headed from Memphis to Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend a conference on anti-Muslim bigotry.

Rahman is an Arabic-language adjunct professor at the University of Memphis and originally from Pakistan. Zaghloul is a religious leader at the Islamic Association of Greater Memphis and originally from Egypt.

“Atlantic Southeast and Delta oppose discrimination in any form from any source and our employees act at all times in the best interest of passenger safety and security. We cannot comment further on pending litigation,” said Eric Torbenson, Delta Air Lines spokesman.

A spokeswoman for ASA, Allison Baker, released the same statement when contacted by CNN.

The imams said they went through TSA checkpoints and their belongings were screened. According to the complaint, while at their gate preparing to board, both men were pulled aside and told they would be subject to a random, secondary security check and search.

The two men claim they “willingly complied and cooperated to the best of their ability,” according to the lawsuit. They say TSA agents asked them for identification and questioned them about their trip to North Carolina, then cleared them to board.

The two were seated about five rows apart, the complaint said. While the airplane was still at the gate, the suit said an airline agent came onto the plane and once again asked the men to produce their photo identification. They say they complied willingly and were cleared again.

But “moments after the plane began to taxi the runway and prepare for takeoff, defendants’ pilot announced that the plane had to go back to the gate. Once the pilot returned the plane to the gate, defendants’ pilot ordered both plaintiffs to get their bags and immediately leave the airplane,” the complaint said.

The two men said TSA agents again searched their bags and “conducted a comprehensive body pat-down.” They claim the TSA agent thanked them for their cooperation and cleared them to board.

However, the suit claims the pilot would not allow them on the plane and then refused to give a reason. A Delta supervisor went on the plane to explain to the pilot he could not exclude the men without “a rational basis,” the suit said. When the supervisor returned, he was “irate,” the suit said, and told them men, “He is wrong,” referring to the pilot.

A higher-ranking Delta manager was requested, the suit said. But while the men waited for the manager to arrive, the plane left the gate.

According to the complaint, the airline manager ordered the plane back to the terminal, then boarded the plane to speak with the pilot. The manager returned, “visibly distraught,” a half-hour later, according to the suit.

The manager told the men that the pilot, “despite acknowledging that both plaintiffs were cleared to board, was personally objecting to the plaintiffs being on his flight. The pilot indicated that he believed the mere presence and perception of the plaintiffs on his plane would make other passengers feel uncomfortable.”

The Delta manager made an announcement in the cabin of the plane stating if any passengers felt apprehensive about either of the men then they could get on another plane and receive a voucher, the lawsuit stated. “Except for the pilot, however, no one else on that plane indicated that they were uncomfortable with either plaintiff being on the flight,” the complaint said.

In the end, the plane left without Rahman and Zaghloul.

The tickets were purchased on a Delta Air Lines website, said the defendants. Atlantic Southeast Airlines contracts with Delta as a Delta Connections carrier, providing connecting flights to and from Memphis, according to the complaint.

The two men are seeking compensatory and punitive damages against Delta and ASA to be determined at trial.