Airline Apologizes For Booting Muslims

(CBS/AP) AirTran Airways is apologizing to nine Muslim passengers kicked off a New Year's Day flight to Florida after other passengers reported hearing a suspicious remark about airplane security.

One of the passengers says the confusion started at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., when his brother was talking about the safest place to sit on an airplane.

"My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security," Kashif Irfan, one of the Muslim passengers, said. "The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window.'"

In a statement Friday, Orlando-based AirTran says it refunded the air fare for the nine passengers and planned to reimburse them for replacement tickets they bought on another airline.

The airline said the incident on the flight to Orlando was a misunderstanding, but the steps taken were necessary.

AirTran also apologized to 95 other passengers whose flight was delayed by the incident.

After the Muslim passengers were removed, Federal officials ordered the rest of the passengers from the plane and re-screened them before allowing the flight to depart, about two hours behind schedule.

"It Escalated … And Everyone Took Precautions"

Earlier, AirTran Airways spokesman Tad Hutcheson called the incident a misunderstanding, but defended the company's response. He said the airline followed federal rules and did nothing wrong.

Irfan told the Washington Post he thought he and the others were profiled because of their appearance. The men had beards and the women wore headscarves, traditional Muslim attire.

Irfan, 34, is an anesthesiologist and his brother is a lawyer. Both live in Alexandria, Virginia, with their families, and were born in Detroit. They were traveling with their wives, Irfan's sister-in-law and Irfan's three sons, ages 7, 4 and 2. A family friend also was traveling with the group to a religious retreat in Florida.

The Post said that five of the six adults were of South Asian descent and that all but one was born in the U.S.

The family was upset that AirTran didn't allow the Muslim passengers to book another flight. The airline said in a news release Friday that one of the passengers became irate, made inappropriate comments and had to be escorted away from a gate podium by local law enforcement.

"The FBI agents actually cleared our names," Inayet Sahin, one of the family members kicked off the flight, told CNN. "They went on our behalf and spoke to the airlines and said, 'There is no suspicious activity here. They are clear. Please let them get on a flight so they can go on their vacation,' and they still refused."

The family and friend eventually made it to their destination on a U.S. Airways flight.

Hutcheson said AirTran initially refused to rebook the family because the airline had not been notified the investigation was complete. He said the passengers were offered full refunds and are now welcome to fly on AirTran after being cleared by authorities.

"At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn't have made on the airplane, and other people heard them," Hutcheson said. "Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand, and everyone took precautions."

Christopher White, a federal Transportation Security Administration spokesman, said the situation was handled appropriately.

White said the pilot, after being informed of the remarks, requested that two federal air marshals on board remove the individuals. TSA then alerted authorities, including the FBI, which conducted an investigation. Once authorities determined there was no threat, it was up to the airline whether to allow the family to reboard.

"If the pilot is uncomfortable with someone flying on their plane, that's their decision," White said.

A spokesman for the FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

One of the passengers removed, Abdur Razack Aziz, said he will consider a lawsuit.

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