Muslim family booted off U.S. airline gets apology

WASHINGTON Fri Jan 2, 2009 4:55pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Muslim family that was ordered off an AirTran Airways flight on New Year's Day received an apology and refund on Friday from the airline, which said its decision to bar the passengers was necessary.

Atif Irfan said in an interview with CNN that federal authorities removed him, seven family members and a friend from the flight after passengers overheard members of the group talking about the safest place to sit on the plane. He said they were being careful to avoid any "buzzwords" like "bomb" that would trigger a security alert.

The group was flying out of Reagan Washington National Airport and was headed for a religious retreat in Florida when other passengers apparently overheard the conversation and reported it to authorities.

AirTran, a subsidiary of AirTran Holdings Inc., issued a statement apologizing to the nine and the other passengers who were inconvenienced by the incident. It said the airfare of the nine was refunded and other passengers would be reimbursed for expenses incurred by taking other flights.

"We apologize to all of the passengers -- to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities, and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight," the discount airline said in a statement.

"While ultimately this issue proved to be a misunderstanding, the steps taken were necessary," it said.

An earlier AirTran statement said the airline complied with all Transportation Security Administration and Homeland Security directives and had no discretion in the case.

All 104 passengers aboard the flight were taken off and rescreened and their baggage was checked again, AirTran said. Of the nine passengers in the group, six asked to be rebooked to Florida, AirTran said.

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said it filed a complaint on Friday with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Islamic civil rights group said in a statement it was working with the Muslim passengers and the airline to address the civil liberties issues related to the incident.

"We believe this disturbing incident would never have occurred had the Muslim passengers removed from the plane not been perceived by other travelers and airline personnel as members of the Islamic faith," the group said in its complaint.

Kashif Irfan, Atif's brother, told The Washington Post he thought the group, all but one of them U.S.-born citizens, were profiled because of their appearance. He said five of the six adults in the group are of South Asian descent, and all six are traditionally Muslim in appearance, with the men wearing beards and the women in headscarves.

Kashif Irfan, 34, is an anesthesiologist, and his brother Atif, 29, is a lawyer, the Post reported. Both live in Alexandria, Virginia.

Atif Irfan told CNN U.S. law enforcement officials treated the group with kindness but the family is upset that the airline did not allow the group to reboard the plane or rebook a flight after they had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

The Post reported the group booked a flight on US Airways after the incident.

(Reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by Eric Beech)

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