Southwest Airlines has become the subject of criticism over reports that it singled out Muslim or Middle Eastern passengers on two flights this week, after fellow fliers said they feared for their safety if those passengers were allowed to fly.
Those passengers who made the complaints may have been especially fearful in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian carrier jet in Egypt, for which the Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility.
Comments made by a number of Republican candidates for the presidency – including poll frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson – have stoked such fears .
Both incidents involving Southwest occurred at Chicago’s Midway airport. In one, on Wednesday night, a Philadelphia pizza shop owner and a friend said they were forced to call police for help after they were asked by a gate agent to step aside in the boarding process, because a passenger was afraid to fly with them after hearing them speak Arabic, according to NBC Philadelphia.
“If that person doesn’t feel safe, let them take the bus,” the pizza shop owner, Maher Khalil, 29, told NBC. “We’re American citizens just like everybody else.”
Khalil said he and Anas Ayyad, 28, both of whom came to the US from the Palestinian territories, felt they had been racially profiled.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I called the cops,” Khalil said.
After being questioned by airport security and the police, he and Ayyad were allowed to board the flight. Khalil said he was thankful to several passengers who stood up for him.
Southwest issued a statement acknowledging that there had been a brief disagreement with two customers.
According to ABC Chicago , a second Southwest flight from Midway was delayed on the same day, when the carrier removed six men of Middle Eastern descent from a plane after passengers protested over their behavior.
In response, Southwest said: “Safety is our primary focus, and our employees are trained to make decisions to ensure that safety, and to safeguard the security of our crews and customers on every flight.”
On Twitter, as news of the incidents spread, several people vowed to stop using the low-cost carrier.
Advocates warned that such incidents occurred because of language, religion or skin color – not because people pose any real threat.
Earlier in the week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations demanded Spirit Airlines apologize after four passengers were removed from a Chicago-bound flight when a passenger raised concerns. At least some of the four reportedly appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent.
“The threshold for ‘see something, say something’ is meant to apply to suspicious behavior, not personal prejudices against minorities engaging in non-suspicious behavior,” the group’s Chicago executive director, Ahmed Rehab, said in a statement.
“That this was escalated into an ordeal seems to be exclusively due to the passenger’s perceived ethnicity.”
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