Sea-Tac passenger pulled from plane because of his looks

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

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.”

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Kim Skarda points at her home on a map on Thursday, June 20, 2024 in Concrete, Washington. A community called Sauk River Estates has a very steep slope above it. There is a DNR-approved timber sale that boarders the estate properties, yet they were not consulted about the sale before approval. The community has already appealed the sale and has hired their own geologist to conduct a slope stability report at the site. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Beneath steep slope, Concrete neighbors fear landslides from logging above

Nielsen Brothers plans to cut 54 acres of timber directly behind the community of 83 homes. Locals said they were never consulted.

Law enforcement respond to a person hit by a train near the Port of Everett Mount Baker Terminal on Thursday, June 27, 2024 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
2 killed in waterfront train crashes were near Mukilteo ‘quiet zone’

In June, two people were hit by trains on separate days near Mukilteo Boulevard. “These situations are incredibly tragic,” Everett’s mayor said.

Rob Plotnikoff takes a measurement as a part of the county's State of Our Waters survey at Tambark Creek in Bothell, Washington on Monday, July 1, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Snohomish County stream team bushwhacks a path to healthier waterways

This summer, the crew of three will survey 40 sites for the State of Our Waters program. It’s science in locals’ backyards.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
4th suspect arrested after Mountlake Terrace home robbery

Police arrested Taievion Rogers, 19, on Tuesday. Prosecutors charged his three alleged accomplices in April.

A 10 acre parcel off of Highway 99, between 240th and 242nd Street Southwest that the city of Edmonds is currently in the process of acquiring on Monday, July 10, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edmonds ditches $37M Landmark public park project off Highway 99

The previous mayor envisioned parks and more in south Edmonds, in a historically neglected area. The new administration is battling budget woes.

Edmonds school official sworn in as Mount Vernon supe

Victor Vergara took his oath of office last week. He was assistant superintendent of equity and student success in Edmonds.

Former president Donald Trump is seen with a bloody ear as he is assisted off the stage during a campaign rally in Butler, Pa., on Saturday. MUST CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Pops, screams and then blood: On the scene at the Trump rally shooting

Isaac Arnsdorf, Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post BUTLER, Pa. - The… Continue reading

Biden, Democrats, Republicans denounce shooting at Trump rally

Reaction pours in from government leaders

A bloodied Donald Trump is surrounded by Secret Service agents at a campaign rally in Butler, Pa, on Saturday, July, 13, 2024. The former president was rushed off stage at rally after sounds like shots; the former president was escorted into his motorcade at his rally in Butler, Pa., a rural town about an hour north of Pittsburgh. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Trump rally shooting investigated as assassination attempt

President Joe Biden gave a brief televised statement, condemning the violence as “sick.”

x
Man charged with hate crime in knife attack at Ezell’s in Edmonds

The suspect, 47, waved a knife at two workers while yelling about getting rid of “the Hispanics,” charging papers say.

Firefighters and EMTs with Sky Valley Fire tour Eagle Falls while on an observational trip on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, near Index, Washington. (Jordan Hansen / The Herald)
Beautiful but deadly: Drownings common at Eagle Falls, other local waters

Locals and firefighters are sounding the alarm as Eagle Falls and the Granite Falls Fish Ladder have claimed five lives this year.

A view of the south eastern area of the Lake Stevens that includes lakeshore and UGA that is a part of the city's annexation area on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 in Lake Stevens, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lake Stevens fight to take over sewer district could end soon

The city and sewer district have been locked in a yearslong dispute. A judge could put an end to the stalemate this month.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.