WASHINGTON – After helping to deliver the District of Columbia’s first baby of 2009, Dr. Kashif Irfan boarded a flight to Orlando, Fla., with his wife, three children and other relatives to participate in a weekend retreat on the peaceful practice of Islam. But instead of taking off as scheduled, Irfan and his family were suddenly ordered off the plane, detained in the airport, and refused the chance to reboard once cleared by security. “I was thinking, what could we have possibly done to render us liable to this form of treatment,” said Irfan, a U.S. citizen born in Detroit.
The handling of the Irfan family, after comments one of them made about airline safety aroused suspicions of two teenage passengers, caused an uproar among Muslim Americans on Friday. The airline, Orlando-based AirTran Airways, apologized to the family. It said it refunded their airfares, agreed to reimburse them for replacement tickets they bought on US Airways after AirTran refused to fly them on Thursday, and also offered to fly the passengers back to Washington free of charge.
“We apologize to all the passengers – to the nine who had to undergo extensive interviews from the authorities and to the 95 who ultimately made the flight,” the statement said. “Nobody on Flight 175 reached their destination on time on New Year’s Day, and we regret it.”
The airline called the incident a “misunderstanding,” but added that the steps that were taken were necessary to ensure security and safety.
The Irfan family was boarding the plane on Thursday when Irfan’s wife made a comment about where the safest spot on a plane might be, according to Irfan’s brother Atif, who was also on the flight with his wife and wife’s sister.
“It was a very lighthearted conversation about the safest spot of the plane,” said Atif, 29, who is a lawyer in Alexandria, Va. “But, I guess, these two teenage girls had gleaned from our conversation that we were going to try and take over the plane.”
That conversation caused the eight family members and their friend, who was also traveling to the conference, to be escorted off the plane and questioned by FBI agents. Federal officials also ordered the rest of the passengers from the plane, did a security sweep of the aircraft, and then re-screened them before allowing the flight to depart about two hours behind schedule.
The Irfan brothers said on Friday that they felt their group had been profiled based on their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore head scarves.
Even after the FBI cleared the family and their friend, AirTran refused to book them on another flight.
In a news release on Friday, the airline said that one of the passengers became irate and made inappropriate comments and had to be escorted away from a gate podium by local law enforcement.
The Irfan family incident prompted the Council for American-Islamic Relations on Friday to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation.