Southwest Airlines apologized on Wednesday to a Muslim woman taken off one of the carrier's jets before a flight out of Lindbergh Field, due to concerns about a comment she made while awaiting takeoff.
Carmel Valley resident Irum Abassi, a graduate student at San Diego State University and mother of three, was wearing an Islamic head scarf when she was told Sunday that she had to leave the plane because a flight attendant considered her "suspicious."
At a Wednesday morning news conference, Abbasi said she believes she was discriminated against because she was wearing a traditional Islamic head scarf.
"'The captain has the final say and they don't feel comfortable with you on this flight,'" said Abassi as she recounted what crew members told her. "I tried to explain that I have a lot of work to do and they still said, 'We'll put you on the next flight.' They did not question me. I even handed over my purse and cell phone for inspection and they didn't even touch it."
Abbasi said a Transportation Security Administration agent escorted her off the plane.
The airline expressed regret over the episode, which caused Abassi to miss her 8:15 a.m. flight to San Jose. Abassi said she was flying to San Jose to continue research for her thesis.
"By the time I went to the counter, I was in tears, I was just crying. I couldn't imagine this was happening to me," said Abbasi, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan 10 years ago.
Southwest Airlines issued this statement about the incident: "We sincerely apologize for the customer's inconvenience, and we regret that she was unable to travel as scheduled. We accommodated her on the next flight to San Jose, and we issued her a travel voucher as a gesture of good will for her inconvenience."
The local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations complained about the woman being taken off the plane. According to the group, a crew member thought she heard the woman say, "It's a go" during a cell phone call.
"They weren't even sure what I said," Abassi said, adding that she really said, "I've got to go," because the plane was about to takeoff.
"My question was, 'Did I do something wrong?"' she said. "And they said, 'Uh, the flight attendant thinks that you are suspicious."'
According to the airline, Abassi "was asked to deplane so we could talk to her regarding behavior observed prior to takeoff."
"After talking with the customer, we cleared [her] to travel ... Obviously, the safety and security of our employees and customers is our number one priority at all times, and we have a responsibility to thoroughly investigate any and all potential safety concerns," Southwest stated.
"If she was a threat or suspicious in any way, shape or form, why in the world would she fly the next flight, right away? The TSA is the one helping her get off the flight," said Hanif Mohebi, executive director of the San Diego Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
The airline is doing an internal investigation.
A spokesman for the TSA said the administration had no role at all in the incident and only learned of it when reporters began calling Tuesday.
Abbasi said she gave the voucher away and doesn't plan to fly Southwest Airlines until she gets a written apology, an internal investigation and the entire crew is disciplined.
She and CAIR believe the recent Muslim hearings by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) played a role in this incident.
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