By Sharon Cohen
Vahid “Tony” Zohrehvandi was seated on an American Airlines flight last Friday when he suddenly was ordered off the plane. He says the reason he was given: The pilot was uncomfortable with him as a passenger.
Zohrehvandi says he explained he was a part-time American employee and showed his photo ID card, but it didn’t matter. He was questioned by authorities in Seattle, released and returned home to Dallas on a later flight.
“It was humiliating,” says the 41-year-old Iranian native and software developer who has serviced planes for the airline for 12 years. “In this country when I became a citizen, they said, ‘You’re an American.’ On that day, I realize I will never be an American in this country as long as I look like this.”
American Airlines declined comment.
Zohrehvandi is among a small but growing number of people with Middle Eastern names or appearances who, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, complain they’ve been refused seats on airplanes because crews or passengers have said they don’t feel safe flying with them.
The complaints involve several airlines and passengers across the country, says Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington. He says the incidents are similar: Passengers pass rigorous security only to be taken off planes or prevented at the last minute from boarding.
“Not only is it a moral problem,” Ibish says, “it’s a violation of the law.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington is providing legal assistance to some of these passengers, says Nihad Awad, the group’s director.
“We are the most diverse society,” he says. “We should not be the most divided. I don’t think we should let stereotypes become policies. We should judge actions, not looks. … It is pure racism and should not stand.”
The federal government has issued a statement to air carriers and Delta Air Lines has reminded its employees that passengers not be singled out.
Delta’s statement came days after Ashraf Khan, a 32-year-old Pakistani-American in a first-class seat, said he was asked by a pilot to leave a Delta flight from San Antonio to Dallas.
A Delta spokeswoman said the airline takes the matter seriously and does not condone discrimination.
In Tampa, Fla., an Egyptian-American, Mohamed El Sayed, said he wasn’t permitted to board a United Airlines plane to Cairo.
A United spokeswoman declined comment on specific cases and said it treats all customers equally.
In Minneapolis, three Iraqi-born men were not allowed to travel last Friday on their scheduled Northwest Airlines flight home to Salt Lake City.
“I feel that it’s not the America I knew,” said Kareem Alasady, one of the passengers. “It’s a different America.”
Northwest said in a statement that it “regrets any misunderstanding” involving the three men and is investigating the incident.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee called on the government to speak out against any profiling of passengers.
Last week, Norman Strickman, assistant director for aviation consumer protection at the Department of Transportation, issued a statement that said, in part:
“We strongly encourage each airline to take steps to ensure that its employees understand that, not only is it wrong, but it is also illegal to discriminate against people based on their race, ethnicity, or religion.”
Delta sent out a similar message to its employees.
“That simply was a matter of reminding people of company policy as well as saying, ‘Let’s take a step back a second. Let’s provide good customer service as well as have a safe environment,’ ” said Delta spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski.
John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, called these incidents unfortunate and said his union is urging the expansion of a computerized system that screens for suspicious passengers by rating factors such as how and when travelers bought their tickets.
“That’s far more effective than looking at the color of skin or facial features,” Mazor said.
Alasady, one of the Northwest passengers who say they weren’t allowed on the plane, said he, his younger brother and a friend were told by an airline employee they couldn’t board “because the crew and passengers refused to go if you go.”
“It’s being rejected with no reason, absolutely no reason,” said Alasady, who is a U.S. citizen. “Those (terrorists) don’t represent us. They represent themselves. People should work together and find out who did it and punish them, same as they did with Oklahoma City.”
The three men took a Delta flight home.
Zohrehvandi, the Iranian-born passenger on American who has lived in the United States for 22 years, said he and a second man were taken off the flight and told “the pilot doesn’t feel comfortable with you two flying.”
Zohrehvandi, who holds an American frequent flier card, said police copied his driver’s license and interrogated him for about an hour before releasing him.
He said he is consulting with a lawyer about a possible lawsuit.
“The hurt is gone,” he said. “It has turned into anger that my civil rights have been violated. I was selected by the way I look. That’s something I cannot change.”
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