By Amy Gardner
updated 2:15 a.m. MT, Fri., Jan. 2, 2009
WASHINGTON - Officials ordered nine Muslim passengers, including three young children, off an AirTran flight headed to Orlando from Reagan National Airport yesterday afternoon after two other passengers overheard what they thought was a suspicious remark.
Members of the party, all but one of them U.S.-born citizens who were headed to a religious retreat in Florida, were subsequently cleared for travel by FBI agents who characterized the incident as a misunderstanding, an airport official said. But the passengers said AirTran refused to rebook them, and they had to pay for seats on another carrier secured with help from the FBI.
Kashif Irfan, one of the removed passengers, said the incident began about 1 p.m. after his brother, Atif, and his brother's wife wondered aloud about the safest place to sit on an airplane.
"My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security," Irfan said. "The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window.' I think they were remarking about safety."
Irfan said he and the others think they were profiled because of their appearance. He said five of the six adults in the party are of South Asian descent, and all six are traditionally Muslim in appearance, with the men wearing beards and the women in headscarves. Irfan, 34, is an anesthesiologist. His brother, 29, is a lawyer. Both live in Alexandria with their families, and both were born in Detroit. They were traveling with their wives, Kashif Irfan's sister-in-law, a friend and Kashif Irfan's three sons, ages 7, 4 and 2.
AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson agreed that the incident amounted to a misunderstanding. But he defended AirTran's handling of the incident, which he said strictly followed federal rules. And he denied any wrongdoing on the airline's part.
"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."
Hutcheson confirmed that it was ultimately the pilot's decision to postpone the flight. But he said the pilot was influenced not only by the complaints from passengers but by the actions of two federal air marshals on board, who had learned of the incident and reported it to airport police.
As a result of that report, federal officials made the decision to order all 104 passengers from the plane and re-screen them and their luggage before allowing the flight to take off for Orlando — two hours late and without the nine passengers.
Ellen Howe, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the pilot acted appropriately.
"For us, it just highlights that security is everybody's responsibility," Howe said. "Someone heard something that was inappropriate, and then the airline decided to act on it. We certainly support [the pilot's] call to do that."
Howe added that the TSA's involvement was limited to conducting a security sweep of the plane after the passengers were removed. Airport police officers' only involvement was to hold the passengers in custody until the FBI arrived, said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the agency that runs the airport.
Hutcheson said AirTran is not likely to reimburse the passengers for the additional cost of their replacement tickets on USAirways. He said they were given a full refund for their AirTran fares and may fly on the carrier now that the investigation is complete.
The detained passengers said that is not likely.
"It was an ordeal," said Abdur Razack Aziz, the family friend who was also detained. "Nothing came out of it. It was paranoid people. It was very sad."